Pretty much anywhere in the nation, you can hear conversations in various dialects — and I don't mean a Southern drawl, a Midwest twang, or a New England lilt. In towns of all sizes, on the streets, in churches and parks — not to mention increasingly on TV — you can hear many languages, particularly Spanish.
This Next America special supplement to National Journal explores the role of English as lingua franca and raises many hard-to-answer questions about a dominant language in an increasingly diverse democracy. Can the U.S. maintain its economic, cultural, and political cohesion while millions of young people are reared in households where English is spoken haltingly, if at all?
Conversely, can the nation retain its primacy in international affairs during the "rise of the rest," when 90 percent of native-born Americans speak no foreign language — a far greater percentage than, say, in Europe? Terry Greene Sterling's cover story looks at one side of this equation, exploring the challenges of teaching English to youngsters who have not been effectively exposed to it at home — and the bitter, politically tinged divisions that the alternative approaches still spark among educators, immigrant advocates, and elected officials.
Stephanie Czekalinski examines the other side of the equation: the encouraging, if still inadequate, growth in the number of native speakers looking to get a leg up by learning Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic.
And in his essay, Michael Hirsh considers the challenge of holding together a changing society by asking whether the United States' growing diversity will deepen the erosion of trust between its people and the institutions that shape their lives.
Each of these stories offers a variation on a central theme appropriate in the weeks after July Fourth: What are the cultural and political ties that can bind America as it experiences its most profound demographic changes since the turn of the 20th century?
During this era of diversification like no other, Americans come in many colors and speak many languages, differentiations that unsettle some. (In one recent poll, 40 percent of respondents said they are "bothered" by encounters with people who can't speak English.) But for coming generations, it may be acceptance of our differences that make us one.
This issue of The Next America opens a dialogue on complex issues that deserve (and demand) the clarity of frank discussion. Please join us online to keep the conversation going at nationaljournal.com/thenextamerica.