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Is Spanish an official USA language?

January 26, 2012

A fascinating story this week shows the USA’s language dilemma, what constitutes an “official” public language. One trajectory for this debate I project in The Highest Frontier,  a hundred years from now when all American speak Spanish/English interchangeably. In real life the trajectory remains far from clear; and today’s story presents intriguing details.

At issue is the right of an American citizen, Alejandrina Cabrera, to run for city council in San Luis, a town in Arizona, whose state law requires conduct of business in English. By all accounts, Cabrera is far from fluent in English. And fellow citizens–themselves immigrants–claim she is unfit to serve.

Yet Cabrera’s most vocal opponents (the current and former mayors) themselves admit to being less than fluent in English (though better than Cabrera, they insist.) In fact, on a practical everyday level in San Luis, more business gets done in Spanish than in English.

But politics is different, they say. The “official” legal business must get done in English. So says the prosecutor–who himself needs to use English translation headphones during depositions in Spanish.

In a final ironic twist, the judge hired a linguist from Utah, with an Australian accent, to test Cabrera’s language ability.

What to do? Should we declare English our one official language? How much English–grade school level? The level of a Republican primary candidate?

Before Europeans start smirking, let me say that last summer I attended an elite scientific conference in Switzerland, a country with four official languages, where educated people slide seamlessly from one language to another. But the conference itself was more complex. All talks were in English–but often, say, a questioner from Brazil was quizzing a speaker from China, and some of us had trouble following both. Thank goodness for Powerpoint–the lingua franca of science.

Then there’s India, where the official language is Hindi (and informally, English); but no others, as there’d be literally hundreds of candidate languages.

So should Cabrera be on the ballot–let the voters decide?  And what about the future of American language?

  1. January 26, 2012 11:52 pm

    It will be interesting. Since we’re a nation of immigrants, we can probably look to periods in the past, and concerns about other languages (such as German) over-running good old English. The two world wars put an end to that.

    Where it will get interesting is that many of the places where Spanish is commonly spoken used to belong to Mexico. There may be a time in the future when the US and Mexico fight over them again.

    My personal guess is that linguists a millenium from now will be talking about the Lish language family (English, Spanglish, Chinglish, Konglish, etc), as a result of global English subdividing in the centuries after some future deglobalization.

  2. paws4thot permalink
    January 27, 2012 6:39 am

    In the specific case, I’d need to see the municipality’s charter.

    In the general case of Spanish as a de facto (if not de jure [I think that’s correct]) USA language, I suspect it is. Certainly I know a NorCal social worker who thinks it might be professionally helpful for her to learn some Chinese and/or Spanish for dealing with her clients.

    Also, can I add Franglais (it’s a real colloquial word if not in the OED) to the list of “future languages”?

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