May 29 2006

Worry Over English Erosion Hardly New

The way we English-speaking Americans see ourselves at home and in the world is necessarily changing. No matter how often we hear that we live in a big, diverse, multicultural country and a global economy, it still surprises us to see English as just one of our languages, not the exclusive one.

That’s because many of us didn’t grow up with language pluralism. The multilingual packaging that frustrated the Sunday shopper is the result of the demands of a global marketplace that blossomed in the 1990s.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1992 by the first President Bush, requires multilingual packaging. Companies want to sell to Mexico and Canada as well as the United States without changing their packages. North America is one big store, and customers are a picky lot.

Mexican law requires that if you want to sell your widgets retail in Mexico, the label information in Spanish must be equally displayed with the English. To put it more plainly: The English can’t be bigger or more prominent on the packaging than the Spanish.

To make Canadian customers happy, a manufacturer will want not only to be sure the commercial information is in French but that the French is idiomatic, as spoken in Quebec, not in Paris.

Americans have been worrying about the erosion of English for decades. It may be some consolation to know that our neighbors in Quebec complain that, despite their best efforts to foster French, English remains the dominant language in the world for business, science and commerce.

That doesn’t mean English will be our sole language. The 2000 Census also found that 47 million people — almost one in five — speak a language other than English at home. The vast majority said they also speak English well. Only about 8 percent of people said they spoke English less than very well.

The reality is that votes in the Senate declaring English the “national language” and the “common and unifying language” were purely symbolic. The measures wouldn’t change a thing, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said. In this country, federal law protects the rights of those who speak other languages.

A brochure, “Federal Protections Against National Origin Discrimination” by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, explains that federal laws prohibit discrimination based on a person’s national origin, ancestry, culture or language.

“This means,” the brochure says, “people cannot be denied equal opportunity because they or their family are from another country, because they have a name or accent associated with a national origin group, because they participate in certain customs associated with a national origin group, or because they are married to or associate with people of a certain national origin.”

The brochure is available in 17 languages, including English.

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