What is the language of America?
That's a question that persistently surfaces in immigration debates and it presumes that we, a polyglot nation woven together from the disparate strands of countless cultures and languages, have a single language in common. We don't.
The first Americans spoke Yupik and Tlingit and Eyak and Inupiaq and Gwich'in. Later waves of immigrants spoke French and Spanish and Dutch and Russian, and long before California was a part of the United States the predominant non-native language spoken here was Spanish.
This nation did not pop from the womb of democracy united around the English language. English was certainly the mother tongue and the lingua franca of all our historical documents. But culturally and practically American society has always been filled with pockets of persistent ethnic identity where a "foreign" language is routinely spoken. According to the 2000 census, 45 million people in the United States speak a language other than English in the home. That's more than 15 percent of the population. There is a thriving population of American citizens in San Francisco's Chinatown who speak only Cantonese.
That said, there is a legitimate concern raised by some that catering too much to the language limitations of immigrants only keeps our society fragmented and slows the integration of new citizens into the education and career paths that lead to success.
The Op-Ed column on this page is a reminder that, while we are truly a nation of immigrants, we are also divided over the importance - even the necessity - of committing to the common use of English. Ronald Hyman objects to the fact that the initial recorded greeting on the telephone line for Sonoma Valley High School is in Spanish. His point is that, at a school where the students presumably speak and understand at least basic English, the phone messages should be in English. But that may not jibe with the practical reality that a majority of Hispanic immigrants in the Sonoma Valley come from rural parts of Mexico and many arrive with limited education and little English fluency. For them, an initial greeting in Spanish may make practical sense.
Hyman's objections extend to the high school's graduation ceremonies, during which major addresses are painstakingly translated into Spanish, making a lengthy ceremony that much longer. For what purpose we're not sure.
Perhaps we would all benefit from efforts for more community dialog so that the Anglo and Latino segments of this melting pot could do a little friendly melting.
No arm lost
Sonoma Valley Hospital did not lose anybody's arm (ever), although the Index-Tribune apparently left the impression that it did with a recent a headline about a rattlesnake bite victim that read, "Snake bites man, hospital loses arm." That unwise, partial use of the cliché, "losing an arm and a leg," was meant to refer to the $100,000 cost of treating the snakebite victim with anti-venom, a cost the hospital had to, so-to-speak, swallow. To be clear - no arms, legs or any other body parts were lost at Sonoma Valley Hospital. We regret the misunderstanding.