Yesterday, I listened to President-elect Obama’s nomination of Bill Richardson as Commerce Secretary. Since I was just listening and wasn’t watching what was going on, I was very focused on the words used by both men and what was behind them. First, I was struck by how casual the President-elect has become when talking with the media – something I like a lot. Second, I thought Richardson gave a relatively content-free acceptance – not a big deal since it was clearly Barack’s show. Third and, perhaps the words with the biggest impact for me, were those used by Richardson when he repeated his acceptance statement in Spanish. Yes, Spanish. My jaw literally dropped open.
Before the accusations of prejudice and racism fly, let me say that I think President-elect Obama’s choice of Bill Richardson as Commerce Secretary is a good one. There are few people around who have the combination of intelligence and broad experience that Richardson brings to the Cabinet. Having been a cabinet member before (Energy) as well as a governor, congressman and Ambassador to the UN is one seriously broad set of skills and, more importantly, a boatload of wisdom to have in the new White House.
My issue with Richardson’s use of Spanish has nothing to do with Richardson, the Cabinet role or his qualifications. It’s that while giving his statement in English and Spanish might seem politically correct, at its best it is simple pandering to the Latino community and, at its worst, it’s completely divisive. Not merging, but further separating the solely English-speaking community and solely Spanish-speaking community.
I can only hope that Richardson’s use of Spanish was aimed more at Latin American and Caribbean countries, sending a message about his support of an all-hemisphere-free-trade league, than it was at American citizens who only speak Spanish.
I think it would be great if every language on the planet were routinely spoken in the US, but there has to be one common language which, when used, is universally understood. We have a perfect example of what happens when this is not the case just north of the US border in Quebec where the division between French and English speakers has caused a huge rift and constant turmoil in the Canadian province.
A good friend of mine, a native of Quebec now a US citizen says of where he grew up –
- Half the people don’t talk to each other.
- In practice, having two languages means institutionalizing a majority and minority, and in the long run the minority it is protecting gets disadvantaged.
- Successful societies have as much in common as possible, and language is one of the biggest barriers to sharing a culture.
No, the US does not have an official language. 30 states do have “official English” laws, though, that state, at a minimum, that government business and records shall be conducted and recorded solely in English, But these laws do not mean English only. Nor should they.
If we don’t have a single language for public communication and governance, where do we stop? Why stop at English and Spanish? How about Chinese, Thai and Russian? Won’t we be leaving those in this country who speak those languages exclusively out if we don’t set up some UN-style translation system where all communication, especially governmental and safety communication is broadcast in every language? What about the street sign that states “SLOW – deaf child playing?” We’re gonna need bigger signs for all the languages we need to cover.
Since this has turned into a rant, I’ll state again that I think it would be great if more, not fewer languages were spoken in the US. There are too few American citizens who only know English and that’s a shame. By not choosing a single, common language however, where English is the logical choice because it’s already spoken by the majority and it’s the most ubiquitous language in the world, we are setting ourselves up to live in a divided society. It’s simply a fallacy to think that adopting multiple languages will bring people together. It’s much more likely to split us apart.