It’s natural to feel out of place in a strange land. But Americans can sometimes feel that way in their own land. The comfortable bonds of a common culture are weakening as the pace of migration quickens, and with rapidly shifting social currents goes the fundamental means of communicating in a shared language. A common language is the glue that holds a culture together. The familiar sound of English is fading in some quarters even as it spreads across the planet.
Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau tells the jarring story of a radical transformation of tongues. Among the nearly 40 million Californians, 44.6 percent aged 5 or older do not speak English at home. Another 18.6 percent do not speak English “very well.” In America’s most populous state, the mother tongue is an orphan.
California is not alone in its dilemma. In Texas, 35.6 percent speak no English at home, and another 14 percent are substantially “English-impaired.” Rounding out the top five limited-English states are New Mexico with 34.5 percent, New Jersey with 31.7 percent, and New York with 31.0 percent.
Across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, 21.6 percent of U.S. residents don’t speak English at home. That’s 65 million persons, and another 8.6 percent don’t speak it very well. Of course, illegal immigrants who “live in the shadows,” as immigrant-rights advocates describe their condition, shun contact with government representatives and presumably were not surveyed by the Census Bureau. Their numbers are commonly estimated at 12 million.
Considering California’s common border with Mexico and its claim to be the nation’s foremost sanctuary state, flouting the nation’s immigration laws, it’s hardly surprising that English is falling out of fashion. New Mexico, which regards itself a sanctuary state, is dutifully following California in transforming its lingua franca.
America has always been a land of many tongues. Some estimates put the number of languages and dialects that echo across the landscape at a stunning 350. There are an estimated 41 million native Spanish speakers in the United States. Together with another 12 million who are bilingual, they comprise a larger bloc than the number of Spanish speakers in Spain. Only Mexico has more, and by 2050, the Census Bureau estimates the U.S. will have become the largest Spanish speaking nation.
Ironically, as the reach of the English language falters in some U.S. states, its influence worldwide has never been greater, and it’s growing. Some 67 nations count English as an official language and another 27 consider it a secondary official tongue. The number of English speakers globally is nearly 1 billion. Mandarin Chinese edges out English, owing to China’s status as the world’s most populous country, but when users log on to the World Wide Web, the most commonly applied language is English.
The tongue of Shakespeare has evolved since the playwright’s day, and the enthusiasm of the moderns to reduce it to bursts of smartphone text is purging the language of kings of its richness and artistry. Without English, America would come to resemble the Tower of Babel that according to ancient texts confounded human forebears. If that’s the sort of diversity that “progressives” crave, they should try crowding the 8,100 symbols of Mandarin into Twitter’s 140 characters.
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