By Tom Still

MADISON – If Congress has its way, English will become the official language of the United States. That’s a bold move. But the World Cup soccer tournament beat them to it.
For the first time, World Cup referees and their assistants will have to show proficiency in written and spoken English in order to be among the 44 officials taking part in soccer’s global tournament this summer. If any game is international, it’s “football,” as it’s called in most of the world. But when it comes to making tough calls on the field, the 2006 World Cup will have an English accent.
English has become a second language for much of the world, without anyone in Washington, Madison or elsewhere decreeing it must happen. There are somewhere between 380 million and 400 million native speakers of English – and at least as many others who speak it as a second language. Within a decade, according to a 2004 report to the British Council, 2 billion people will be studying English and half of the world (about 3 billion people by then) will speak it to one degree or another.
English has become “lingua franca,” or universal language, for reasons that speak to the influence of Western culture, economics and politics. The rise of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries spread English beyond the mother islands, and the dominance of the United States since World War II has continued the spread of the language. Today, only Chinese and Hindi are spoken by more people as their native tongue. English is already the world’s most widely learned second language, and millions more are clamoring to learn.
English is the language of the Internet, motion pictures, science and sports. It is the “cash” language spoken in the corridors of trade, and the diplomatic language spoken in the corridors of power. People want to learn English because they need to. It’s necessary for them to function in today’s world.
That brings us back to the recent U.S. Senate vote to declare English the “official” language or the “common and unifying” language of the United States. Many senators are worried about the flow of illegal immigrants across our borders, about three-fourth of whom are Spanish-speaking, and they fear the United States will become a modern Tower of Babel. They’re also resentful of Clinton-era bureaucratic changes that required many federal forms to be issued in Spanish as well as English, as understandably dubious of some “English as a Second Language” programs in schools.
But if people want to learn English, won’t they do so? That’s what happened with waves of immigrants in our nation’s history. In Wisconsin a century or so ago, German was spoken almost exclusively in some communities and there were scores of German language newspapers. Milwaukee was nicknamed “Deutsch Athen” (German Athens), and at one point there were more German speakers than English speakers in the city.
Time passed, and English emerged as Wisconsin’s “official” language without really being declared so. English-only instruction laws for public and private schools accelerated assimilation and generally solved the problem. More recently, about a dozen of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have passed “official English” laws, and the Wisconsin Legislature has debated the topic in nearly every session since the mid-1980s. But so far, there is no “official langage” in Wisconsin.
Concerns about illegal immigration are real, but it betrays a lack of confidence in our own culture and economy to declare English the official language of the United States. English has become the quasi-official language of the world, simply because so many people admire our economy, our democratic principles, our culture and our technology. Let’s not create an environment that is less welcoming than what greeted many of our own ancestors.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.