Immigration and learning a new language

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Being approved for a visa and various work and residency permits is often only one of the first steps an immigrant faces. When arriving in a new country and culture, the language barrier may rapidly become the most important problem to resolve.

US lawmakers this month have renewed a long-standing debate over whether or not to legislate English as America's official language. As in many other countries of the world, the debate in the US over whether English is endangered is not necessarily directed at the words we speak. Somewhat ironically, it is feelings against the contamination of native languages by English that stirs the debate in other countries, such as France.

The language spoken is usually more related to concerns about migration issues and possible changes to culture and society. Especially in the US, where second languages are nearly unknown in large sections of the population, the sound of an unknown tongue raises discomfort in many people.

Approximately 160 countries have specific measures included in their constitutions to protect in some form what is perceived as their national tongue. Up until now, the United States has passed no such official measure, although the first attempt was made in 1981. In some nations, guarding the language has gone a bit further than only their constitutions.

France's Academie Francaise, an entire university-level institution dedicated to the French language and culture, is both admired and ridiculed for its dedication to protecting the "langue de la nation" from words borrowed from other tongues - particularly English, rather unaffectionately known as Franglais.

Canadian lawmakers have passed legislation in an attempt to make clear that Canada is a bilingual nation. Nearly everything from cigarette packages to highway signs are published in both French and English.The exception is the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, where English has been virtually eliminated.

The Academy of the Hebrew Language in Israel is responsible for the creation of new Hebrew words and rules on spelling and grammar. The Icelandic government has established the Islensk Malstod, a national institute that considers and crafts the new words needed to sustain a language that has changed little in nearly 1,000 years.

This month, politicians in the US are covering a topic that has been controversial since the late 1700's, when John Adams in 1780 attempted to have English declared as the national, unifying language. No similar measure has ever been passed. Founded in 1983, a group called "US English" has strongly advocated English as the national language. This is the group that is a primary advocate behind recent efforts to assert English as a national language

During and after World War I, when German-speaking immigrants constituted the nation's largest minority, making English the nation's official language was briefly supported. While it failed, many services that immigrants had enjoyed for generations - including many bilingual education programs - were terminated.

The thing that has made English so popular is that the language changes rapidly to accommodate a rapidly changing world, recently having been calculated to exceed a total vocabulary of over 1,000,000 million words. In comparison, German comes in a distant second around 250,000, while Spanish and French have approximately 200,000, and Russian estimated as having approximately 125,000.

Even so, laws establishing English as the official language in the US are probably more symbolic than practical. It could lead the government to restrict services provided in other languages. The same changes would also apply to any country. While it may provide a sense of security to some, and possibly reduce some government services, it may also, in the long term, diminish the value of people coming into a country.

As Europe has and is learning, despite the difficulties, a broad multi-lingual and multi-cultural society has many benefits.

Even in the US, businesses are discovering the benefits of broadcasting in Spanish to increase their customer base, and many places have bilingual education services.

[ Last edited 30 June, 2006 for formatting and clarity; links added. ]