- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008


It is a truism, accepted at home and abroad, that the United States is a diverse nation, pulsating with the heartbeats of a hundred ethnic groups, harking back to every other nation on the entire globe. All continents, races, ethnic groups, languages, tribes, and families have contributed to the making of America. America is a vast “melting pot” with ties to all humanity.

A common language binds the nation: A nation speaking one language is stronger, more firmly united, and more secure than a nation divided by language barriers. Canada, self-governing since 1867, is officially bilingual, a fact that has engendered bitter conflict including the prospect of secession by Quebec. Belgium, another advanced Western nation, features ugly confrontations between French and Flemish populations.

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, has seen sharp rivalry between its two opposing language groups, the Sinhali and the Tamils. India, featuring 123 languages and more than 600 dialects, has severe conflicts among its ethnic components, greatly exacerbated by language differences. These problems are replicated in scores of regions throughout the world. The U.S. must avoid this divisive issue.

But many say of the United States: “What’s the problem? English has been our common language for more than 200 years. We have no problem.”

But we do have a growing problem. Most early immigrants eagerly, some almost fiercely, embraced English, certain that their future was dependent upon learning English and adopting the “American Way of Life.” Today, however, many in new waves of immigrants resist the common language and even U.S. citizenship. Today an estimated 24 million newcomers cannot speak English and many oppose learning the language of America.

America must resist Balkanization. It is wonderful to honor one’s heritage, language and culture. But to enter America is to accept a fresh start, a new commitment and a new birth in a new world.

Few assert the superiority of English, but it is the historic and common language of the United States. It is the “glue” assuring national cohesion and unity.

If we concede two languages, which shall they be, in addition to English? Spanish? French? German? Arabic? Or an Asian tongue? We must remember that about 400 languages are spoken in the United States.

There is also a little-noted national security factor, about the effect of additional languages. Defeat in battle will possibly ensue from the inability of military personnel to communicate in a common language. Prussian Field Marshall Gebhart von Blucher, opposing Napoleon, could not effectively command his disparate elements of German, Swedish, Polish, Russian and other troops, and thus lost to Napoleon. Even Alexander the Great confronted serious language problems. American commanders on land, sea and in air must be able to communicate directly and immediately with their units.

Thirty states have passed constitutional amendments or state laws making English official. These include California, Texas, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina, and New York all with large favorable majority votes. Most recently Idaho and Kansas adopted English officially. Alaska has successfully defended its English language law.

Congress faces the issue this year. The English Language Unity Act of 2007 (H.R. 997), sponsored by Rep. Steve King of Iowa and 145 co-sponsors, is on the table for House action this year.

Two Senate measures (S.B. 1335 and 2715) seek the same goal. These measures are nonpartisan. They are progressive and constructive, seeking to meet a need and solve a problem.

Let us hope this legislation is approved promptly by both House and Senate, and signed by the president in 2008. These actions will strengthen the nation, enhance national security and further unify the American people.

Robert H. Spiro Jr. is a former university professor, dean and president.

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