By Monica Vega
Contrary to popular belief, the United States does not have an official language.
The idea of making American English the official U.S. language dates back to 1780 when it was first proposed to the Continental Congress by President John Adams. At the time, the United States was a budding nation characterized by a variety of languages, so the idea of declaring one official language seemed undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty.
Over the past 200 or so years, however, English has become the dominant tongue in the United States. Nonetheless, despite legislators’ efforts to get a national language declared, they have failed largely due to the same reason given in 1780.
The American Civil Liberties Union goes as far as declaring that establishing an official language would infringe upon the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Despite the lack of federal backing for an official language, there has been a growing English-only movement which has targeted just about every non-English speaking group in the United States, specifically Spanish speakers.
This comes as no surprise seeing as Spanish is the most spoken and fastest growing non-English language. Moreover, this growth in Spanish-speaking is not specific to native speakers.
According to the Pew Research Center, Spanish is spoken by more non-Hispanics in U.S. homes than any other non-English language. This growth can even be seen at the University of Georgia where Spanish is by far the most popular language to study with more than 200 Spanish classes being taught in 2013.
But should the rapid growth of Spanish in the United States be considered a threat to the English language’s linguistic hegemony?
For some Americans, this is an issue.
In September 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona, viewers of 12 News questioned news anchor Vanessa Ruiz’s pronunciation of Spanish words. They wanted to know why Ruiz “rolled her Rs.” Another objection dealt with how Ruiz pronounced Mesa, the third largest city in Arizona. Pronounced by locals as “May-suh,” Ruiz pronounced it “Mess-uh” on air.
Ruiz responded to the criticism by saying, “I was lucky enough to grow up speaking two languages…So yes, I do like to pronounce certain things the way they are meant to be pronounced.”
Also in September, Donald Trump once again drew attention when he criticized Jeb Bush’s use of Spanish to address crowds saying, “He’s a nice man. But he should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”
When former Republican vice-president nominee Sarah Palin was asked to weigh in on Trump’s comment, she said, “It’s a benefit of Bush to be able to be so fluent, because we have a large and wonderful Hispanic population that’s helping to build America.”
Palin then added, “We can send a message and say, ‘You want to be in America, A, you’d better be here legally or you’re out of here. B, when you’re here, let’s speak American. Let’s speak English, and that’s a kind of a unifying aspect of a nation is the language that is understood by all.”
The idea of using language as a unifying force within the U.S. is the main argument for the declaration of a national language, but it can be argued that the opposite would occur and a national language would only further alienate and subjugate non-English speakers.
Historically, the U.S. has never been a monolingual country. In fact, the history of Spanish in the U.S. southwest extends farther than that of English. So why should it be an issue that Spanish is being spoken in America? And why should Spanish speakers apologize for it?
Discrimination against those who do not speak any English is felt even more strongly than discrimination against those who choose to communicate in both English and Spanish.
Alejandro Hernandez, a Spanish and International Affairs double major from Atlanta, Georgia tells the story of a time his mother was discriminated against for not speaking English.
“My mom was trying to order [at McDonald’s] but she didn’t know any English so she was asking [my sister and I] to translate but the lady at the register got mad and asked that if she couldn’t speak English to just let the next person in line go.”
When asked why he believed English only speakers looked down on the use of Spanish in the United States, Hernandez said, “I feel that when they see or hear something that is different or un-American they feel threatened or excluded…threatened by a culture and language that they do not understand.”
The Pew Research Center projects that the number of Hispanics who speak only English at home is on the rise and is expected to reach 34% by 2020. But while this may be true for some Spanish speakers, others like Hernandez take pride in their bilingualism and speak Spanish openly and unapologetically.
“I like speaking Spanish because it makes me seem more intelligent if anything else and neither Spanish nor any other language is a threat to America. And I would never apologize for speaking Spanish because I think that if I respect American culture then English speakers should respect mine.”