It is late afternoon in Manhattan on the Fourth of July, and I’m walking along on Lexington and 59th, in front of Bloomingdale’s. Suddenly in my sight there’s a young woman standing on a street grate. She is short, about 5 feet tall, and stocky, with a broad brown face. She is, I think, Latin American, maybe of Indian blood. She has a big pile of advertisements in her hand, and puts one toward me. “MENS SUITS NEW YORK—40% to 60% Off Sale!—Armani, Canali, Hugo Boss, DKNY, Zegna. TAILOR ON PREMISES. EXCELLENT SERVICE LARGE SELECTION.” Then the address and phone number.
You might have seen this person before. She’s one of a small army of advertisement giver-outers in New York. Which means her life right now consists of standing in whatever weather and trying to give passersby a thing most of them don’t want. If this is her regular job, she spends most of her time being rebuffed or ignored by busy people blurring by. You should always take an advertisement, or 10, from the advertisement giver-outers, just to give them a break, because once they give out all the ads, they can go back and get paid. So I took the ad and thanked her and walked on.
And then, half a block later, I turned around. I thought of a woman I’d met recently who had gone through various reverses in life and now had a new job, as a clerk in the back room of a store. She was happy to have it, a new beginning. But there was this thing: They didn’t want to pay for air conditioning, so she sweltered all day. This made her want to weep, just talking about it. Ever since that conversation, I have been so grateful for my air conditioning. I had forgotten long ago to be grateful for it.
Anyway, I look back at the woman on the street grate. It’s summer and she’s in heavy jeans and a black sweatshirt with a hood. On top of that, literally, she’s wearing a sandwich board—MENS SUITS NEW YORK. Her hair is long and heavy, her ponytail limp on her shoulders. She’s out here on a day when everybody else, as she well knows—the streets are not crowded—is at a ballgame or the beach. Everyone else is off.
So I turned around and went back. I wanted to say something—I don’t know what, find out where she was from, encourage her. I said hello, and she looked at me and I patted her arm and said, “Happy Fourth of July, my friend.” She was startled and then shy, and she smiled and made a sound, and I realized: She doesn’t speak English. “God bless you,” I said, because a little while in America and you know the word God just as 10 minutes in Mexico and you learn the word Dios. And we both smiled and nodded and I left.
I went into Bloomingdale’s and wrote these words: “We must speak the same language so we can hearten each other.”
* * *
The question of whether America should have an “official language,” of whether English should be formally declared our “national language,” is bubbling, and will be back, in Congress, the next few sessions.
When you look at papers outlining the facts of the debate, things break down into dryness very quickly. Should “issues of language diversity” be resolved by imposing “linguistic uniformity”? This is like asking if the robots should speak logarithmically or algorithmically. There are few things you can rely on in this turbulent world, but one is the tendency of academics to use language poorly, even when discussing language.
But there’s something odd about the English question. It feels old-fashioned. Because we all know America has an official language, and a national language, and that it is English. In France they speak French, and in China they speak Chinese. In Canada they have two national languages, but that’s one reason Canada often seems silly. They don’t even know what language they dream in.
The real question, ultimately, is whether America wants to go that route. Should we allow America devolve into a nation of two official languages—in this case, following recent demographic trends and realities, English and Spanish?
We’ve never done that in more than 200 years. It would be radical, and destructive, to do it now.
We speak English here. It’s a great language, luckily, a rich one. It’s how we do government and business. It’s the language of the official life, the outer life, in America. As for the inner life of America, the language of the family, it would be just as odd to change longtime tradition there, which has always been: Anything goes. You speak what you came over speaking, and you learn the new language. Italian immigrants knew two languages, English and Italian. They enriched the first with the second—this was a great gift to all of us—and wound up with greater opportunities for personal communication to boot. Talk about win-win. And so with every group, from every place.
But in a deeper sense, we should never consider devolving from one national language down into two, or three, because if we do we won’t understand each other. And we’re confused enough as it is.
In the future, with the terrible problems we face, we are going to need to understand each other more and more, better and better. We’re going to need to know how to say, “This way” and “Let me help” and “stop” and “here.” We’re going to have to negotiate our way through a lot of challenges, some dramatic, some immediate, and it will make it all the harder, all the more impossible-seeming, if we can’t even take each other’s meaning, and be understood.
* * *
The only other debate I suppose we should really be having on languages is how to help our future generations learn more of them. (Mexican immigrants who speak Spanish and English have a leg up here, and will benefit from it.) We live in the world, and we want that world to understand us better. We want to understand it better, too. Europe is lucky: All those different cultures and languages are bundled up all close to each other and next to each other. They learn each other’s languages with ease. We have oceans to the left and right, and vastness. For us, or at least the older of us, learning another language is still a leap. As a nation we probably should leap more.
But on English as the language in which we live our shared national life, and share our culture, and our dreams, we should stay where we are. Which hasn’t, for 231 years now and counting, been a bad place to be.