By Joe Cannavo
A visit to the State of New Jersey’s Division of Pensions and Benefits website inspired me to share some thoughts this month about the many languages our diverse culture uses to connect with the one nation we call home.
As I was about to submit my ideas for publication, several executive orders were issued from the White House, which shifted my thinking in a cautious direction. Could the editorial be construed as political? Would it be?
Given my apolitical policy here at the Herald, I considered scrapping it. Then I thought that if the column could be presented in the proper context, it wouldn’t be a political statement, but a statement about “cultural fairness.”
So before I go any further, I want to clearly express that just as I urge fellow Italian Americans to celebrate their heritage and seek to pass the Italian language on to future generations, I believe other ethnic American communities should do likewise, while respecting the language and culture of the country where our immigrant ancestors came in search of a better life.
My ancestors never expected to have other Americans dragged into their culture and language “kicking and screaming.” In fact, the vast majority endeavored to learn English knowing what an important step it would be toward Italians being accepted here and to be able to eventfully make it here, which brings me to the editorial that I spoke of earlier.
I had reason to log on to the New Jersey Division of Pensions and Benefits website. Out of curiosity, I clicked on language selection, and a dropdown menu appeared offering 103 languages, even including Latin and Esperanto. No one was left behind, and certainly one would be hard pressed to claim that the site favored one group over another. Sadly, I can’t say that you would find that to be the case on many other government sites, private business sites, voter information forms or ballots, or a box of Bisquick.
On the other hand, one might say that the New Jersey site is “overkill.” Rather, let those who can’t read English figure it out for themselves, which from a practical viewpoint makes some sense. After all, imagine the burden and the cost of doing this on a large scale. For instance, just imagine the taxpayer cost of printing voter registration forms and sample ballots in 103 languages. It would be astronomical! My point is that we must encourage and facilitate ways for all Americans to know English.
The challenge is to do this without discouraging them from preserving and celebrating their ancestral language and heritage within their community, and to invite others outside their ethnic group who wish to learn about their language traditions. This is fair and equitable.
However, today this is not the case. One language has been signaled out for preferential treatment. About 99 percent of the time when you call a business or government agency, you can’t get past step one without a message to press one for English, press two for what looks to be the language that will overtake English in the United States.
Same goes for many mainstream American brand products on store shelves and big signage you see at Lowe’s or Home Depot. And with each passing school year, foreign language electives are dwindling down to one choice. The educational system favoring one language only is certainly not a positive thing for students interested in learning heritage languages or languages that are also dominant in leading global economy countries. More importantly it is not encouraging many speakers of this favored language to consciously understand the importance of English if one wants to succeed here and to be part of mainstream American life, rather just to have the benefits of being in the United States.
It should be the duty of each immigrant to learn English. No one group, including us, the Italian Americans, should have ever expected Italian to be forced upon others or imprinted on a box of pancake mix. If when Italians had arrived by the thousands, their native language had been catered to, I don’t think that it would have benefitted them in their hope of being successful, nor would non-Italians at that time have been happy to be forced to learn Italian in school.
So it stands to reason that in fairness to the all multi-cultural peoples who have made this country great, who will continue to do so in the future as they maintain ties to their ancestral heritage, to assure that immigrants can really succeed in the future, and to respect and to maintain the status of English as our common and national language, it needs to be English only in the areas referred to above, or we follow the all-inclusive language choice standard of the New Jersey Division of Pensions and Benefits.