Ronald Reagan once said, “By emphasizing the importance of a common language, we safeguard a proud legacy and help to ensure that America’s future will be as great as her past.”
To say that the language “legacy” in the United States is “proud” is a dangerously presumptuous statement.
A 2001 Gallup poll indicated that about 26 percent of United States’ citizens speak a second language. When asked how important is was that U.S. citizens learn a second language, only 19 percent said it was essential. It can’t be expected that all of the people in the U.S. have a burning desire to be bilingual, but the opposite shouldn’t be a reality. Fifty percent of those polled said they thought it was important to learn a second language, but 12 percent said it was not important at all.
With a country as diverse as the U.S., most of the people should think it’s important to engage in other languages.
The “legacy” Reagan mentioned is imperialism. To assume that we have the right to establish a “common language” is insensitive. There’s a difference between understanding English and being able to speak it. An understanding is sufficient. In the same way, the United States as a whole should acquire an understanding of other languages.
Reagan struck out on one essential idea in his statement too: there are multiple “Americas.” Citizens of South, Latin and Central America are called South, Latin and Central Americans. Therefore, it’s quite a slap in the face to say that all “American” people should speak English.
The average United States’ citizen is trapped in a limited linguistic perspective. Some even call the Spanish language Mexican because they don’t understand that more than Mexican people speak Spanish.
I started learning Spanish as a freshman in high school. I’m still a gringo, but by simply understanding it, I’ve been able to engage in its culture: the people, the history, the customs and everything else.
My hometown is an agricultural community in East Washington state. A significant percentage of the community is Hispanic, mostly Mexican. Because I could speak a second language, I could become acquainted with the people in the community. The knowledge I had of Spanish eventually led to a series of opportunities. I was able to interview Javier Lopez Ortiz, an artist from Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico, in Spanish for an article I wrote for the local newspaper.
I didn’t have to teach myself the language; all I did was take classes in school and observe the culture around me. Additionally, it’s not even necessary to become immersed in the language to understand it.
Spanish is one of the many languages spoken in the United States. According to the same 2001 Gallup poll, 55 percent of those who speak a second language in the U.S. speak Spanish, 17 percent speak French, 10 percent speak German, three percent speak Italian, 2 percent speak Chinese, and 13 percent speak another language. These numbers are promising, but with a national attitude like the one expressed in Reagan’s statement, it’s likely that those in the U.S. who speak another language are either immigrants or native speakers.
Understanding other languages brings more than a diverse cultural mind set. When people in the U.S. look back many years from now, they should be able to say that the country emphasized multiple languages, which safeguarded a proud multilingual legacy, and helped ensure that the nation’s future will be as great as her past.
Wyatt Kanyer is a sophomore news-editorial journalism major from Yakima, Wash.