On road signs, menus, and office memos, Spanish is appearing more and more frequently all across America. Fuelled by massive immigration and a departure from assimilation, the Spanish language now threatens to overtake English as the first language of many American communities, prompting a re-examination of America’s official alingualism.
The United States now has the second highest number of Spanish language speakers in the world, after Mexico. American hispanophones now outnumber their counterparts in Colombia, Argentina, and Spain, where the Spanish language originated some centuries ago. To some, this poses no problem. The United States is a melting pot, home to innumerable languages (New York City alone has 800) and cultures, and the rise of a particular language is nothing to fear.
Furthermore, by law there is no official language in the United States of America. The federal government has no legal obligation to prefer the use of English over any other language, but in a country where nearly all businesses transactions, government affairs, and public education have been conducted in the same language for centuries, the lack of an official language seems to imply very little, at least until recently.
The rise of Spanish has challenged the complacency of America’s English-speaking majority. Immigrants in recent years, mostly from Mexico and Central America, have shattered the traditional association between assimilation and immigration. Whole communities of Spanish speakers have sprung up in the American Southwest and throughout some of the country’s largest cities. Xenophobic pressures from the rest of America have further strengthened the self-contained nature of these communities, often reducing their need to learn English and their ability or desire to integrate into Anglo-America. This marginalisation is strengthened by the demagoguery rampant in the current American political climate.
What results is a vicious cycle: xenophobia towards Latinx immigrants prevents them from being integrated in the conventional way, which yields greater xenophobia. The cycle turns and turns on itself, spiraling out into what has become an enormous Latinx population that is often times less integrated than other groups of recent immigrants. The Spanish language has found itself at the center of this issue.
The American right, which generally takes a more conservative approach to immigration, has largely taken the stance that learning English should be mandatory for American citizenship. This political position ties the English language to the core of American identity—the right to participate fully as a citizen in the country’s democratic society—in an unprecedentedly official way. It particularly targets the nation’s largest linguistic minority, because Latinos tend to speak a language other than English at home at a higher rate than any other ethnic minority. American conservatives have chosen to respond to the vicious cycle of xenophobia by emboldening and codifying its ugly result – a mistrust and disenfranchisement of those who don’t speak English as their native language.
Meanwhile the Spanish speaking majority, perhaps further emboldened in their isolation by aggression from the American right, has dug its heels in and is here to stay. Just recently surpassing 47 million native speakers in the United States, some studies show that the United States is set to have 29% of its population speaking Spanish by 2050, surpassing the percentage of French speakers in Canada and Italian speakers in Switzerland, where both languages have official national status.
And so, faced with an all but certain future, America must decide what it stands to gain from official bilingualism, and what it stands to lose.
The cost of administering a state in two languages is certainly not negligible. Guaranteeing official translations of every official document, providing bilingual services at every federal level, and translating existing federal regulations can be costly endeavors. Bilingualism in Canada costs the government $2.4 billion per year, a sum that would certainly be many times greater at an American scale.
A less tangible, and perhaps less pragmatic, argument, often packs the greatest punch: America is an anglophone country. The United States government is the heir to colonial administrations who governed, at their origin, English speaking settlers. For all its diversity, at its historical core the United States is anglophone. And not only is its language closely closely with the British isles, the core of American culture is largely derived from that of the Puritan British who founded the country. And for centuries, the hegemony of English faced no identifiable or conceivable threat. Immigrants learned English, forgot their native tongues, and fully integrated themselves into Anglo-American society. This precedent was set, not by law or ordinance, but by tradition and time. While this argument holds little practical weight, it is generally the most popular justification against the official recognition of Spanish as coequal.
But recognising Spanish as an official language could help begin to bridge divides between Anglo and Hispanic Americans and assuage the damage done by decades of marginalisation. It could open business opportunities with growing economies in Central and South America and make official a bilingual situation that has existed de facto in the southern US for decades. In short, the costs of official bilingualism are easy to see and easy to predict, but the benefits are both hard to define and hard to overestimate.
But no matter which path America undergoes, the longer it ponders the cost and benefits of bilingualism, the more pressing the situation becomes. The United States will be forced to confront how to deal with this fundamental issue soon, as America is on track to become the number one Spanish speaking country in the world in only 34 years.