I just returned from a 16-day business trip to China and Korea. Though I speak no Mandarin or Korean, fortunately I encountered many Chinese and Koreans who speak English to varying degrees who helped me.
For the past 25 years, I have worked in recruitment and admissions for two U.S. colleges. My job is to meet students, parents, teachers, administrators, educational agents, and anyone related to U.S. college admissions abroad.
The United States has almost 700,000 international students from around the globe enrolled in educational institutions. Though thousands are enrolled in English-language classes, the vast majority are seeking certificates and diplomas. For these, they must prove English-language proficiency to varying degrees before being granted admission.
To do this, they must have studied English for many years, often beginning in elementary school. Fortunately I had the opportunity to meet with many students who understood and spoke English. I sat in a public Chinese high school English class for juniors and came away impressed with the students’ fluency in, and comprehension of, English. They will be prime candidates for higher-education studies in America.
On my last day in Seoul, I boarded the airport shuttle from my hotel and overhead a transaction between the Korean bus driver and a boarding passenger whom I presumed was also Korean. I later learned that he was Chinese. Since neither person could communicate in the other’s language, they had no choice but to communicate in English.
By no means was this surprising. English is the universal language for travelers—that is for travelers who know English and who are not accompanied by an interpreter. No matter which country throughout the world one might visit, the service workers in the tourist industry will likely speak some English—not just for the benefit of Americans, the British, and Canadians, but for the benefit of others who do not speak the language of the home country and who happen to understand English.
English is also the universal language for business, and any businessman operating outside his country knows that as well. English is also the language of aviation. It is the language of soccer, or football as it is known throughout the world. Ever watch the World Cup and see the players and referees of different nationalities exchanging pleasantries with each other? Chances are they are communicating in English.
The “New America” of the 21st century must recognize the value of English, not just as a means of allowing speakers of varied languages to understand one another. Americans must accept English as a unifier of the diverse and growing population reflecting different languages and cultures. English is not just another language on par with every other language spoken in the United States; English must be the language that unifies us all: “Of Many, One.”
Lamentably, our liberal political elites don’t see English as the language of worldwide communication; some may regard it as an imperialistic language no better than any other language. They would prefer to see a bilingual or multilingual country that requires the government to translate publications and documents into numerous languages, something that currently exists. In some areas of the U.S., ballots are provided in as many as 30 different languages.
Do we not have an English-language test that is a requirement for citizenship? And if so and this is met, thus allowing a permanent resident to become an American citizen who has the right to vote, why should a bilingual ballot be required?
In the near future, it is likely that Congress will pass some measure of immigration reform. In doing so it must make two priorities: the security of the country and its citizens, and the assimilation into American culture and society of all present and future immigrants as American citizens. This was the norm for those coming to America through the 19th and 20th centuries.
The first step of assimilation of immigrants for whom English is not their first language is learning English. We do no favors for immigrants and their children by enabling them to avoid learning English. Perhaps it is time to make English the official language of the U.S. and to reinforce its primacy.
The world knows the importance of English. The U.S. can and should do no less.