Spanish: California’s once and future language

There is much ado about “preserving” English as America’s primary language, but in California at least, things are not so simple. The 2000 Census revealed that for the first time non-hispanic Whites were no longer in a majority of the population (46.7 percent) and that 40 percent of California’s population speaks a language other than English. Now, it turns out that the real story was that no group was in a majority, and the once-dominant Anglo population had become just the largest of the minority populations in the state, but the linguistic implications are equally interesting.

After Anglos, the largest population are persons of Hispanic or Latino origin at 32 percent of the population statewide. And in the state’s most populous county, Los Angeles, the Hispanic population is larger (44.6%) than the non-hispanic White population (31.1%). In fact, on the basis of its population of Mexican citizens, Los Angeles qualifies as the second largest Mexican city on the planet, after Mexico City.

Given California’s demographic trends, it is likely that Spanish speakers will become a majority in the state sometime in the next two decades. This will of course inflame the debate about whether English should be the state’s “official” language along the lines contemplated by the anti-bilingual Proposition 227 which voters approved in 1998.

Behind this push to preserve English is the argument that California has historically been an English-speaking state. The argument is bad history, for it turns out that California’s first Constitution, adopted in 1849 specifically provided that English and Spanish were both the official language of the state. Section 21 of ARTICLE XI stated: “ All laws, decrees, regulations and provisions, which from their nature require publication, shall be published in English and Spanish.” And the Constitution itself was published in both Spanish and English.

Spanish and English once officially co-existed in California, and there is no reason why the State cannot be officially bilingual again. So, instead of fighting the inevitable, those who would oppose the official use of Spanish alongside English should consider enrolling in Spanish classes at their local community college, and also encourage their children to start studying as well. It might broaden their cramped horizons, and also help make California’s citizens more competitive in a global economy.