I must admit that I indulge in a private chuckle during the inevitable "English only" point of any immigration debate. It seems like almost every modern attempt at comprehensive immigration reform carries with it some caveat or stricture regarding the place of English and English-language proficiency.
Make no mistake: my laughter is not over learning English, but rather, the way that English is portrayed in these discussions. I'm particularly prone to a guffaw when the rhetoric soars to the lofty heights of "preserving and enhancing the role of the English language" in the US, as one amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 put it.
My own view of English is informed by years in the trenches, writing dictionaries and taking the worm's-eye view of our language – and from down here, I can safely say that, contrary to the panicked squawking of linguistic doomsayers, English is not in need of any conservation or preservation. It is, in fact, flourishing. This is due, in part, to all the foreign words and phrases that English has borrowed and stolen over the centuries – including a substantial number of words brought by immigrants.
Take Spanish, a frequent target of American lexical jingoism: English has been borrowing words from Spanish – or its ancestor language, Old Spanish – since the 14th century. It's not surprising when you consider that Spain was one of the reigning world powers in the Middle Ages. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Spanish managed to circumnavigate the globe, conquer half of the New World, and claim the Pacific Ocean. They gave the world Henry VIII's first (and most long-lived) wife, Catherine of Aragon. And they coughed up two Popes and an Antipope.
Our oldest Spanish "loanwords" give you a sense of just how much of the world Spain was conquering. "Armadillo", "iguana", "sarsaparilla", and "tobacco" describe new flora and fauna Spanish explorers found in North and South America. "Canary" flitted into English from the Spanish name for a group of islands off the coast of Africa. "Eskimo", while ultimately from an Algonquian language of western Canada, likely was introduced into English via Spanish.
Spanish influence doesn't end with the Renaissance: almost a quarter of the US was under Mexican or Spanish rule until the mid 1800s. If you grew up watching spaghetti Westerns or idolizing the Wild West as presented by Johns Wayne and Ford, then you are steeped in Spanish loanwords. Renegade caballeros on broncos, riding through the canyons of Colorado – if you dump the Spanish loanwords, you're left with "on, riding through the of".
Over the last 400 years, there have been movements to make English a "pure" language, and these movements have generally targeted foreign loanwords. Even lexicographers were not immune from lexical nationalism: Samuel Johnson, in writing his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, omitted foreign words (like "skunk" and "hickory") that had gained currency in the English-speaking American colonies.
But such movements ignore a basic fact: English has been borrowing words from other languages since its infancy. The names for the days of the week are some of our oldest English words, and they honor the sun, the moon, and a handful of northern Germanic gods the Anglo-Saxons worshipped. But "Saturday", the beginning of our weekend, honors a Roman god in Saxon clothes: the Anglo-Saxon "sætern" means "Saturn" and was stolen outright from Latin.
And so it goes, throughout history. English takes Latin words and Old Norse words, then dips into French, Spanish, Arabic, Dutch, Bantu, Wolof – and that doesn't even bring us into the modern era of immigration, where loanwords from Yiddish, Modern Greek, Italian, German, Japanese, Farsi, Irish Gaelic, and other languages arrive.
At present, English has borrowed words from over 350 languages, and it shows no signs of stopping that behavior. Even our best efforts at isolationism are ignored by our shifty whore, English: in the same decade that the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the US, effectively banning Chinese immigration into the States, "chop suey" and "tung" (as in the oil) entered the English language – from Chinese.
Language, like immigration, is complex and thoroughly untidy. While we may legislate immigration, we will never successfully legislate our sprawling, inclusive language. Any attempt to do so runs contrary to truly "preserving and enhancing the role of the English language".
Stamper, Kory. 2013. “America's fabulously mongrel language is a model of immigration reform”. The Guardian. Posted: April 21, 2013. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/21/america-language-model-immigration-reform