‘I don’t speak English” is quickly becoming the most popular phrase in America.

It’s already catchier than “Got milk?” and may even be surpassing the once funny and famous “Where’s the beef?”

Never mind the whereabouts of milk and beef. We should ask instead when English will be declared our official language.

Sweden may have a higher percentage of English speakers than does southern Arizona. And we’re not the only area affected.

Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, has an enclave known as Little Odessa where they only speak “the Russian.”

Chinatowns have popped up like button mushrooms, from the long established in San Francisco to the blossoming communities in Queens. Conversing in English means a smile and a nod.

This is not a rant against foreign languages or cultures. Both are essential in making America the rich tapestry it has become while serving to preserve tradition and heritage.

I would be tickled to add more of my own heritage, provided I knew a few more words of Polish than the slang terms shoo shoo and dupa.

The whirl of various tastes, tones and aromas – especially curry – makes the United States an awesome place.

But just as Americans should respect the aspects of other cultures, other cultures, in turn, should respect what’s been established in America.

Like the English language. I wouldn’t move to Moscow, Mexico City or Paris and expect to get around without learning their mother tongue.

France’s language police – made up of L’Académie française and La Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie – long have been protecting its linguistic borders. They especially frown upon words borrowed from English, such as “talk show,” “blog” and “le weekend.”

England’s on a new tear, with some local city councils trying to kick out Latin words and phrases, according to a recent Associated Press story.

That country’s Plain English Campaign has been purging confusing legalese for 30 years, making legal and public documents easier for common folk to read. But now some city councils are taking it ad extremum.

I’m not asking for the same extremes here in America. Eradicating Latin would ruin too many crossword puzzles.

Nor do we need to purge our lingo of other foreign words or phrases. It’s just too much fun to say, “zeitgeist,” “beaux arts” and “chimichanga.”

And all hell would break loose if we tried to change place names derived from foreign roots. That would kill Detroit, Baton Rouge and every third street in Tucson.

La Cañada Drive.

Camino Seco.

Ajo Way.

Let the place names and foreign phrases be preserved, but let’s also preserve jolly old English.

Sweden can blame its glut of English, in part, on its inability to proclaim Swedish an official language.

Having one official language would save thousands – if not millions – of dollars and countless forests each year.

Many utility bills come with duplicates of those crappy little inserts that no one reads anyway.

Here in Tucson, one copy is in English, the other in Spanish. Brooklyn companies regularly sent them in English, Russian and Chinese.

Even some multilingual junk mail arrives. We have to wonder how many trees were chopped down to make two or more linguistic sets of those big, fat election pamphlets.

Banks could save overhead, perhaps raise our interest rates, if they didn’t have to install ATMs that asked for your money in several different tongues.

Cucumbers, cereal and, yes, even chimichangas could be marked down when supermarkets saved bundles with self-checkout stations giving directions in one language instead of two or three.

American teachers would really have it easy. They could teach in English, hand out homework in English and have students answer in English. Wow. What a way to learn.

We could go about daily life, here in these United States, knowing we’d truly understand and be understood.

That’s really what America should be all about.

Ryn Gargulinski is an author, artist and Tucson Citizen reporter who has a master’s in English literature, a minor in French and learned from a cab driver how to swear in Egyptian.


This column originally appeared in the Nov. 14, 2008, issue of the Tucson Citizen newspaper.