Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Monday, July 16, 2018

No official language? No problem.

The U.S. is rare in that, on the federal level, we don’t have a national language. While English is the de facto national language and several states have language laws on the books, the federal government isn’t legally bound to conduct official business in English.

Aren’t we lucky that we get to live in a nation where citizens are not restricted by the bounds of one’s mother tongue? It’s an integral part of our nation that people who aren’t a part of a certain linguistic group can read government documents in their language.

While studying abroad in Italy, I had to deal with several Italian legal documents — no English translations. Ushered to a police station by my program director my first week in Rome to complete routine forms, I hardly knew what I was signing.

But the government’s attitude toward my predicament was clear. Why would the Italian government ever bother translating a document from Italian into English for all the American exchange students that live there every semester? People who come to Italy need to speak Italian.

That’s the logic anyway, and it’s something I find slightly hypocritical when people from Torino and Sicilians hardly speak anything resembling the standard Tuscan I learned in school there. Even the politicians in parliament are restricted to debating in traditional Italian, and there have been instances of members’ microphones being switched off if they speak in their regional dialect.

Italy isn’t a unique instance either; there are organizations all over the world that regulate language usage in other countries. The U.S. is free of this burden.

America was founded on the principles of freedom and liberty — words that are smeared and marred by today’s political rhetoric — and as a place where people had the freedom to worship in any way they chose, to believe any ideology they wanted and to speak whatever language they wanted.

One language in particular rose to prominence.

English is spoken from birth by 82 percent of the population and 96 percent report speaking English “well” or “very well.” Spanish is far behind at 10.7 percent, but the fact remains that federal business in the government can be done in Spanish or French or German if the opportunity were to arise.

Unfortunately, our government can be slow when it comes to embracing multilingual opportunities.

The 2010 census was the first time the U.S. Census Bureau launched a website in Spanish. It was also the first time a bilingual edition of the census was sent out to 13 million homes across the nation. It’s slow, but at least it’s an option.

There do appear to be inconsistencies, however, in how the government looks at English as the prominent language in the U.S.

To take the citizenship test, one does have to have a basic understanding of English, and several states have implemented laws declaring English their legislative language.

However, it has been federally mandated that voting ballots need to appear in several languages since 1975.

Our country can’t subscribe to something as limiting as one language, because the American population isn’t homogenous.

If the U.S. were to ever adopt an official language at the federal level, it would completely undermine the foundations this country was built on. In the romanticized view of immigrants coming to the U.S. from Europe at the turn of the last century, boats came into the New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty greeted them, welcoming them to a place where your old life wasn’t important; it was what you did with your new life here that mattered.

The sonnet found inside the Statue of Liberty by Emma Lazarus is the perfect reminder of how accepting this land can be: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

These two lines from that poem encapsulate exactly what America is supposed to be.

America was never a place for the loftily confines of a government-mandated language, it’s a place where people, cultures, languages all mix. To define our nation by one solitary language would discredit not only our past, but also where our country is headed.

Francesca Morizio is a senior double majoring in CAS and Kogod.>

edpage@theeagleonline.com


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