When the store manager at Wal-Mart announces, “Special de hoy; ¡comprar tres tomates y conseguir uno libre!” over its public address system Wal-Mart is providing a service to a segment of its customer base. At the same time many find it irritating when a clerk at the same store is unable to assist due to their limited English skills. “English only” is an ongoing debate; some feel English should be the official language of the United States, others don’t mind being required to press one for English. Nonetheless, research has demonstrated the United States is way out of step with most English-speaking nations because we are one of the few countries on the planet that doesn’t have an official language.
Former Colorado governor Dick Lamm told us, “…history has demonstrated repeatedly that no nation can survive the tension, conflict and antagonism of competing languages.” But regardless of one’s position on the matter, we need to get used to it because no self-respecting CEO is going to turn away customers because of a language barrier.
But there’s one aspect of the English only debate that is seldom discussed. More than any other factor, the ability to use the English language will dictate an individual’s level of success in America.
Speaker and author Earl Nightingale wrote a dissertaion titled, “The One Thing You Cannot Hide.”. For those unfamiliar with Nightingale’s work, his expertise lay in the fields of human motivation, excellence and meaningful existence. In his thesis Nightingale illustrates how a person may dress in the latest fashion and present a prepossessing image, but the minute he or she opens his or her mouth, they proclaim to the world their level on the social pyramid. Studies have shown that more often than any other measurable characteristic, knowledge of the exact meaning of a large number or words accompanies outstanding success in these United States. The reason should be obvious, i.e., understanding our language is the key to learning everything else.
To quote Mr. Nightingale, “From the earliest of times, the favored class of people has always been the educated class. They can make themselves recognized instantly, anywhere, by the simple expedient of speaking a few words. Our language, more than anything else, determines the extent of our knowledge.” It’s the humanitarian aspect of this subject that piques my interest because millions of Spanish-speaking people are being held back in life simply because they lack a command of the English language.
Making accommodations for immigrants is noble, but printing ballots and other official documents in Spanish may cause more harm than good. Many will tell us government is providing a necessary service to an expanding segment of society. Perhaps, but are the consequences of such policies are worth the so-called benefit? Printing official government documents in Spanish sends a not-so-subtle message that it’s OK for Spanish-speakers not to learn English and by extension, not to assimilate.
But there are even more insidious ramifications to this matter. English is the language of science, business and higher education in most places around the world, so while some dissemble and tell us we already have a national language—we don’t (an official language and a national language are two entirely different things.) It can be argued that by not advocating for an official language in order to make it ‘easier’ for Spanish-speaking immigrants to function in an English-speaking society we are actually doing these people a great disservice, and are handicapping them and keeping them from a better life.
A command of the English language equates to knowledge. And knowledge is power in the digital age—power the individual can exercise over their lives and their future. This much is certain, almost without exception, an individual’s command of English will determine his or her place on the societal pyramid as well as their future income.
Quote of the day: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”—Ludwig Wittgenstein