THE BLOG
05/23/2013 01:39 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

'Speak English or Get Out'?

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Just this afternoon, I was part of a trilingual conversation that took place in my French teacher's office. One of the custodians, emptying the trash, was speaking to her daughter in Spanish, while my teacher jabbered away in French about how she couldn't understand a word that they were saying, and I noted to myself in English that I understood about three words in Spanish.

This kind of thing has become the norm for me. I practice my French when I can, and in a state with a large bilingual population, it's common to hear conversations taking place in Spanish. Although there was a controversy only two weeks ago about whether high school athletes in the New Mexico Activities Association are allowed to speak Spanish on the field, these kinds of disagreements nearly always end up with a ruling in the favor of bilingualism.

And yet, among those who are not first- or second-generation immigrants, second-language acquisition seems to be dying. Some say that foreign-language education is obsolete -- in many schools, they are are only the second to go, after the arts, when budget cuts come around. With English as a rising language of diplomacy, technology, and communications, some people wonder why Americans should even bother learning a second language at all.

Why bother, indeed. This Nelson Mandela quote may be overused, but that doesn't make it inaccurate: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." Bilingualism is to be encouraged not only for communication or business purposes, but because it fosters greater respect and understanding. It shows reciprocity in international and personal relations, and foreigners are flattered when you show that you have at least made an attempt at learning their language.

So, why, when I'm on the road, do I often see bumper stickers demanding that the reader "Speak English or Get Out!"?

Fact: The United States is a multilingual nation. Most large American cities have burgeoning immigrant communities from all over the globe, and even smaller ones, such as mine, have signs and official documents translated into one, two, or even three languages. I walk into my orthodontist's office and hear the receptionist jabbering away in fluent Spanish. My passport, and that of any American, for that matter, has its text translated into French and Spanish.

Admittedly, speaking English is a tool that permanent American residents should have; it is the de facto official language of the U.S., and many states, such as Colorado, have laws that bar the use of any other language on official documents. "Should," however, does not equal a requirement, and these stickers do not ask the reader to "learn" English, they ask them to "speak" English -- that is, stifle anything of their culture that those who are intolerant quite literally do not understand. It is the immigrants who make this country bigger than one culture, one language, and one people, and the U.S. should not pretend to be homogeneous, even as the world drifts increasing into the hegemony of only a few languages.

It breaks my heart a little that about 90 percent of the world's languages are at risk of extinction. The world is quickly becoming lost in a tide of Mandarin, Bengali, Arabic, Hindustani, Portuguese, Spanish, French, German, and Russian, but most of all, English, and the United States should not contribute to English hegemony by quashing the diversity that we would, in an ideal world, stand for wholeheartedly. I could not be patriotic in a country where people from varied backgrounds are expected to eschew their culture and language. That's not the country that I believe in.

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