The United States, the most successful country in history, manages to be kept awake at night by imaginary perils.
The latest threat to our well-being seems to be the prospect of losing our national language. Apparently, you and I won't be speaking English much longer if something isn't done to prevent it. But not to fear! Congress is riding to the rescue, with English-only legislation that would forbid the use of foreign languages on ballots and other federal documents.
The House has passed a bill that would make English the official language, and Bob Dole favors the idea. The object, we are told, is to accelerate the adoption of English by immigrants and discourage the persistence of linguistic ghettos.
Though 150 or so languages are spoken in this country, the supporters of the bill aren't worried about Urdu or Mandarin. They are concerned about the 14 million people whose native language is Spanish.
The United States is one of the world's major Spanish-speaking countries. It produces some of the most important Spanish-language TV and radio programs. It has a vigorous Spanish-language press, and even mainstream publishers are beginning to print Spanish-language novels, essays and other nonfiction.
Should that worry us? House Speaker Newt Gingrich thinks so.
And as an example of the perils of linguistic pluralism, he cites the movement in French-speaking Quebec to secede from English-speaking Canada.
Outside of Washington, particularly in the West and Southwest, the response to the Spanish peril" has bordered on the hysterical, fed by small groups of populist xenophobes. They often are driven to that position by the incendiary rhetoric of Hispanic activists who threaten to take back" the West.
Let's look at the facts, not emotions. Most Spanish-speaking immigrants come to the United States seeking a better life, not to widen the territorial arc of their language. Most regard learning English as fundamental to economic and social advancement.
The persistence of Spanish reflects not so much resistance to linguistic integration as it does the uninterrupted flow of newcomers. If there were no new immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries for 20 years, the percentage of Spanish speakers would diminish. If that is what most Americans want, let us revise the immigration laws.
Those who think English requires special protective legislation should look at what is going on in our society and elsewhere.
English is the international language of finance, commerce, diplomacy, science and education.
As the lingua franca of popular culture, it is spreading across the globe, particularly among young people, who consider English the key to all things modern, prosperous and hip. Why should teenagers of Latin origin be any different?
The United States isn't vulnerable to the traps of linguistic separatism exemplified by countries with more evolved bilingual cultures. Unlike Canada, Belgium or Switzerland, America has no literary intellectual class dedicated to maintaining a consistent level of quality in a second language. Indeed, the quality of spoken Spanish in the United States often is poor.
As Hispanics integrate economically and culturally into our society, they are likely to lose their linguistic distinctiveness.
Though the presence of a large Spanish-speaking population is a reality, we never will become a linguistically bifurcated country.
There are many divisive forces in American society, but language isn't one of them. The United States isn't a Balkan principality. There is no point in acting as if it were.
Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar at AEI.