An Elephant, That Trump

With the grace of a bull in a china shop, billionaire Donald Trump has revived the debate about the official language of the United States. His latest riposte targeted Jeb Bush, brother of the other one, former Florida governor and candidate for the Republican nomination. Reacting to a speech that Jeb Bush gave in Spanish to a group of Spanish speakers, Donald Trump ordered him to “set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”

The question of languages in the United States is full of irony and nuances that escape Donald Trump. The U.S. government has never declared an official language, although some 30 states have declared themselves “English-only,” which does not change the fact that the largest of them have a near-majority of Spanish speakers. Moreover, it is suspect to present Spanish or French as foreign languages there, given that the United States practiced systematic annexation throughout the 19th century. These languages are as American as English, although obviously less than the Amerindian languages.

Donald Trump would benefit from reading the report “Language Use” in the United States, which is published — let’s reassure him — in English. It shows that about 61 million Americans speak a language other than English at home — 21 percent. Of these, 37 million speak Spanish at home. French is fifth on the list, with 1.3 million domestic speakers, preceded by Mandarin (2.9 million), Tagalog (1.6 million) and Vietnamese (1.4 million), but ahead of Korean and German (1.1 million each).

What should reassure Donald Trump is that the goal of this official study is above all to establish whether these people speak English “very well,” “well,” “not well” or “not at all.” It shows that 74 percent of Spanish speakers speak good or very good English, slightly below the average of 77 percent of respondents across all languages. That’s 15 million bad Americans, or 5 percent of the total population.

French in the United States

Donald Trump would be practically apoplectic if he read “What language does your state speak?” by reporter Ben Blatt, who compiled some amusing pictures from this dry study for Slate magazine.

It turns out that Spanish is, after English, the most common language in 43 states. Surprise: French is in second place in four states (Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont). The other three languages (German, Tagalog and Yupik) are practiced in North Dakota, Hawaii and Alaska. The other surprise created by Ben Blatt is his third map: Excluding English and Spanish, French stands out in 11 states, which places it second after German (16 states).

I’ve already written that it is roughly estimated that the number of Francophones in the U.S. is between 5 and 13 million, which is significantly more than the 1.3 million who report speaking it at home. This gap is explained in several ways. First, the study on the use of languages made some biased choices, which put French at a disadvantage: It lumps Spanish, Spanish Creole and Ladino under the label “Spanish,” as well as Mandarin and Cantonese under the label “Chinese,” while it separates French and French Creole.

But the “language spoken at home” is only one facet of a language’s position. As you would expect in a melting pot, many Francophones speak another language at home. French in the United States draws large reinforcements from Haitians, Africans and North Africans, of which a very large portion have been fully educated in those languages. This does not include the millions of Americans who learn French and whose number has been more or less stable for 20 years.

For proof, it suffices to consult two studies produced by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (secondary education) and the Modern Language Association (post-secondary education).

Of the 8.9 million young people learning a foreign language at the primary and secondary levels, 6.4 million study Spanish and 1.3 million study French (more young people learn French than the other languages combined). Competition is stronger at post-secondary levels. Of the 1.6 million young people studying languages in college and university, Spanish accounts for fewer than 800,000. The 200,000 learning French are nearly as numerous as learners of the three next languages (German, Italian and Japanese). Clearly, French still holds a special place among languages taught in the United States.

I’ll have to return in more detail to the last two studies, which are very nuanced, but which reveal that Jeb Bush, with all due respect to Donald Trump, is far from being the only American not to “set the example.”

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