The problem with this renewed push for an official language in the U.S. is that in some influential circles, it’s not at all about the convenience of communication, and all about the marginalization of those who aren’t stereotypically American. You’ve only got to look at the commotion surrounding Mexican immigration, to see that under the guise of homeland security, a hell of a lot of the discussion isn’t directed at solving a particular facet of the problem in a magnanimous way (and let’s be honest—the largest economy in the world has no excuse for a lack of magnanimity), but rather at censuring them at every step, and generally treating them like dirt. That attitude isn’t far removed from the racism that plagued America not so long ago, yet for some reason, be it xenophobia, prejudice, or something else, the idea that recent immigrants (and especially illegal ones) ought to be positively crushed is rampant. Send them home, or funnel them through a transparent and just immigration system, but don’t hunt them like terrorists, and don’t legislate more ways to marginalize them, out of spite.
So when I see talk of an official language bill, and it’s sponsored by the very same representatives who proudly announce that they support every effort imaginable to crush the ‘alien invasion’, I wonder if their isn’t a causal link between the two things. The cynic in me thinks that this is all part of the effort to make America as inhospitable to unskilled foreigners as it can possibly be. For a populace descended mostly of colonists, immigrants and/or slaves, the utter distaste for the new crop of outsiders is startling.
I realize that this reasoning doesn’t necessarily apply to the average American, who might simply think it cost-effective to maintain one official channel of communication. But when a correlation exists between the xenophobic politicians and the pro-official-language politicians, I can’t help but think that this whole idea might be tarnished by their unwavering desire to maintain the demographic status quo.
Even if they had nothing but the best intentions in mind (maybe saving money, for example), I’d question the utility of such a program. After all, with government services the way they are today, how often is the primary language not English anyway? And since there will always be those people who are not fluent in the principal language, but who have to deal with important things in English, there’s always a place for government services to offer critical advice in other languages, rather than pedantically deny it, because the request wasn’t phrased in the right language. I’m not saying that everything has to be in every language, but immediate concerns transcend the desire for linguistic conformity—as an example, who would advocate for a terrorism tip-line to operate only in English, because it’s the official language? Whose head would roll, when the tip that was received in Spanish was ignored, and people died because of it? The same goes for taxes—if you want to collect tax, it’s only fair that you instruct people how to pay it in a way that they understand. Sure, they’re obliged to pay, whether you do it or not, but how much money will you lose to people who (because they don’t read English well) don’t complete a tax return? Can you prosecute them all, and better still, would you want to, given the costs and the potential for dreadful publicity?
Back here in Canada, we do have two official languages (English and French, of course). But if you come to the government, speaking mostly Arabic, they’ll at least try to help. Somehow, I don’t see an equivalent attitude being too prevalent in some portions of the U.S., these days. Maybe that’s my own prejudice talking, but on the other hand, the tone of the politics surrounding recent official-language efforts hasn’t been too reassuring.