Column: Is English a choice or an obligation?


Following Coca-Cola’s controversial commercial, many are questioning whether establishing a national language will help or hinder the nation (Internet Photo)

Grace Downing, Staff Writer

In the midst of one of the most anticipated sporting events of 2014, the Super Bowl, Coca-Cola aired a widely viewed and widely controversial commercial that demonstrated the diversity that is present throughout our country. In this commercial, entitled “It’s Beautiful,” Coca-Cola played “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a variety of languages, while depicting an array of Americans from numerous backgrounds. Needless to say, this advertisement sparked a topic of argument for many people.

But igniting conversations about the immense diversity in America seemed to be exactly what Coca-Cola had in mind.

“‘It’s Beautiful’ is exactly what Coca-Cola is all about: celebrating the diversity that makes this country great and the fact that anyone can thrive here and be happy,” the beverage industry said. “We hope the ad gets people talking and thinking about what it means to be proud to be an American.”

A more specific topic of controversy that arose from this commercial came from the fact that “The Star-Spangled Banner” –  America’s national anthem –  was played in languages other than English. Despite the fact that the majority of the nation’s population speaks English, the United States does not have an official language. The Huffington Post concluded that, as of February 2014, 70 percent of Americans thought that English should be our country’s official language.

The number of immigrants entering America continues to rise each year, and with that rise comes an increase in the variety of ethnicities that make up our country, and therefore, the number of languages spoken here is also on the rise.

Cecilia Muñoz, the vice president of the National Council of La Raza, which is the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, wrote in the New York Times about how detrimental making English our official language would be.

“We at NCLR wholeheartedly agree that everyone should know English,” Muñoz said. “We’d be thrilled with legislation that devoted substantial money to teaching English, but you cannot pass a law declaring English the national language and magically expect everyone to know the language overnight.”

The Washington Times reported that, as of 2000, only 8 percent of the American population was determined to have a limited English proficiency. Even though this is an encouraging statistic, if English is made the official language, there will still be a percentage of people who will find themselves suddenly scrambling to get by in a country that no longer tolerates those who do not speak a certain language.

Muñoz also made a point to display the potential dangers that arise when we do not make an effort to communicate with all of our citizens.

“Making English our national language hampers the government’s ability to reach out, communicate, and warn people in the event of a natural or man-made disaster such as a hurricane, pandemic, or, God forbid, another terrorist attack,” Muñoz wrote. “That puts everyone’s health and safety in jeopardy.”

But isn’t America the land of opportunity, where we are all accepted and everyone is given an equal chance at success? How can that idea hope to be achieved if we refuse to provide a means of ample understanding and communication to all those who live here?

Lloyd Vries, a journalist for CBS, made some strong points about how American immigrants have played a key role in making some beneficial changes to the English language over the years.

“One thing the English-onlyites seem to forget is that America has always been a melting pot,” Vries said. “There are examples of Spanish, French, Yiddish, and German words that have been absorbed by English and are now used by Americans every day. It makes for a richer language and culture. Is there any reason to think that in the future when we start to adopt some of the language of the ‘new’ immigrants, that English will be any less enriched?”

English, like the United States, is forever evolving and improving. With the rise of each new generation, our nation continues to change and adapt to the culture that envelops it. The United States cannot, and should not, have an official language because, in the end, it is the diversity of our country that unites us.