Knoxville News Sentinel - Lamar Alexander
In the June 11 News Sentinel, a California professor wrote that my Senate resolution "to prohibit (singing) the national anthem in any language other than English" is "hostility to foreigners" and "further dividing the nation." The professor was also upset at "those who perform the anthem at any pace slower than 120 beats per minute, in march tempo, as written." With this, having been raised in Jack Connell's Maryville High School marching band, I agree.
But he is wrong about English, and the approach of the Fourth of July is a good time to explain why.
To begin with, my resolution, which the Senate adopted unanimously on May 8, did not interfere with the professor's right to sing the anthem in Swahili, if he chooses. It did say it ought to be sung in our common language, English.
Our common language helps unite our nation of immigrants. That is why, during its debate on immigration, the Senate adopted my proposals:
To provide $500 grants to help prospective citizens learn basic English.
To allow someone who becomes fluent in English to become a citizen after four years instead of five.
The Senate also:
Declared English to be America's national language.
Provided that anyone here illegally must learn English before gaining legal status.
Some senators said we were wasting time debating national unity and language. But other nations are discovering just how important and difficult it is to unite one's country. Germans are struggling to absorb Turkish workers. Italians are helping new Muslim residents "feel Italian." Three alienated British citizens, children of Pakistani immigrants, blew up a London subway last summer.
We Americans are proud of our diversity, but Iraq and Jerusalem and the Balkans are also diverse. America's greatest accomplishment is that we have united our magnificent diversity into one country. Our original national motto was E Pluribus Unum, "One from Many."
"Aha," says the professor. "The national motto is in Latin." But today Latin is no country's common language. It is the ancestor of several. At Maryville High, Miss Reed taught Latin to 9th-graders to improve our English.
Most nations unite around ancestry and race, making it hard for newcomers. Imagine "becoming Japanese" or "becoming German." On the other hand, the U.S. Constitution says race or ancestry can have nothing to do with someone becoming an American. Instead, American unity is based upon ideas, principles found in our founding documents -- such as liberty, equal opportunity and the rule of law. New citizens therefore must pass an exam about the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and United States history.
And, since 1906, new citizens have had to learn English. Before that, according to the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, common (public) schools were created "primarily to help immigrant children learn the 3 R's with the hope that they would then go home and teach their parents."
The first Europeans in America were French and Spanish, but our cultural beginnings and primary institutions and laws were Protestant and English. So English became the way Americans of many backgrounds communicated.
This has turned out to be a fortunate choice. English has also become a unifying language internationally. For example, every Chinese student is expected to study English.
The most fortunate children are those who grow up learning more than one language, but American parents know that one of those must be English. Mastering English is how an American succeeds in school, in the workplace, on the computer and in international affairs.
Without our common language, it would be difficult for Americans to talk with one another, to debate political issues and to vote. It would be harder to function as a democracy and to unite as one country. Without English we would risk becoming just another United Nations instead of the United States of America.