On July 3rd the New York Times ran a rather short story about the addition of a new voting language on the ballots in Queens, New York for the September 10th primary elections. For the first time in New York history, South Asian voters in Queens who speak Bengali will find their heart language as they place their votes. In addition to Bengali, the 60 polling sites across Queens also offers Spanish, Chinese and Korean on the ballots.
There are over 120 languages spoken in Queens. The borough used to be predominantly Jewish and Italian but throughout the waves of Asian immigration the neighborhood has shifted. Now when you walk the streets of neighborhoods like Flushing in Queens you are more likely to see signs in Chinese than English and hear a variety of dialects that can either bind or divide a community.
Interestingly, the United States does not have an official language. Although individual states have made English the official language of their state, there is not a federal law to make English the official language of America. As more and more urban neighborhoods in America develop pockets of non-English communities the issue of language rises in importance. Has it become necessary is to preserve English as the official language of America?
The question is intriguing to consider especially as the cost of translation and bilingualism throughout government, education and medicine are quite staggering sums. In the city of Los Angeles alone more than $15 million was spent in translators and bilingual education for the 2002 election. Is it time to officially declare a common language for all Americans or would doing this go against the flow of freedom and diversity that has come to characterize the country?
Do we insist that all signage must be in English? Do we require immigrants to learn the language until they can function in society? If there isn’t a common language is it hard to achieve unity and understanding? All of these questions continue to rise in importance as the cultural diversity of America grows.
Certainly the United States is not the only country without an official language. Australia, Chile and Mexico also do not have an official language. This doesn’t mean that a language has not risen to predominance (such as Spanish in Mexico or English in Australia) but it is still significant.
Perhaps the biggest question is this: when a country’s diversity continues to increase, does the need for an official language decrease or increase as well? It’s probably a debate that will continue for years to come. At the very least it shows us that once again language is an integral part of our societies and a vital tool for anyone’s existence.
Whether or not your country demands it, may we all use language to unify rather than divide and celebrate rather than discriminate.