Proponents of the question argued long and hard to make English the official language of Iowa. They cited reasons ranging from the neutral need for a common language to the down-home pragmatism Henry Ford once applied to his automobiles: you can have any color you want, as long as its black. Opponents argued just as strenuously that making any tongue the official language of Iowa was morally wrong. They saw such an effort as at least an insult to Iowas growing minority populations and at worst proof that our state motto might as well be Iowa for IowansNo Others Need Apply.
If youre an Iowan, or if you have a student on loan to us, I suspect you have an opinion on the matter. Most of us do, or did, anyway, before the legislature and the governor took all the fun out of the fight. But now that English is indeed the official language of Iowa, perhaps its safe to see what Des Moines hath wrought. If youll suspend your judgments for a moment, Ill suggest that our public servants have in fact served us well. Heres why. Both sides are right.
We do need a common language. As Benson Bobrick notes in the prologue to Wide As the Waters, his history of the King James Bible, the Gospels were almost completely inaccessible throughout England for the 14 centuries they remained locked in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. It was their translation into a common tongueEnglish, in this casethat brought the Gospels and all the works that followed into everyday life. A common tongue was the master key that eventually freed English people of their ignorance and isolation. It may not have made them smarter or less warlike, but at least they could proceed to smite each other with more than monosyllables.
At the same time, we need to agree that a common language is not the only language. Corn and beans may sustain us statewide, but neither staple would compete very long as food against the menu of even the humblest burger joint. The world of almost limitless customization and choice our students are inheriting is not the limited world Iowans once knew. Iowa, like America, is no longer an isolated fortress. Drawing up the gate and hiding behind walls simply will not work in a world of knowledge powered by silicon and spread by light.
Ultimately, Iowas long debate on our now-official language came down to Iowa stubborn: Tis, Tis Not. In the end, both sides are right. English is our official language. But its not our only language, nor should it be. After all, Interstate 80 will get you through Iowa in a hurry. But its only the side roads that will actually bring you home.
Jim and Carol Waterbury are parents of UI senior Libby and UI freshman Dan. Carol still remembers bits and pieces of French. Libby speaks somewhat more Spanish than the average Iowan on spring break in Cancún. Dan speaks Spanish and Japanese. Fortunately, all three speak English to Jim who, like the family dog, responds best to soft words and his own name.