## Pushing buttons

While driving somewhere in the North County of San Diego this past holiday weekend, I found myself behind a large Ford Extravaganza (or Excursion, Expedition, Explorer, whatever) with a bumper sticker proclaiming:

BOYCOTT ANY COMPANY
THAT REQUIRES YOU TO
PRESS 1' FOR ENGLISH!!

I couldn't (easily) find an image of this bumper sticker on the Interwebs, but in the brief process of searching for it I found many other images with messages along the same lines. The t-shirt image on the right (from a website selling "John McCain […] Anti-Obama Political Conservative Republican" t-shirts and other such paraphernalia) is by far one of the tamer ones; next in line is this one (WHY SHOULD I HAVE TO PRESS 1 FOR ENGLISH?), then this one (Aren't YOU tired of "PRESS 1 FOR ENGLISH?"), then this one (Why in the hell should I have to press "1" for English?), and it takes a nose-dive into outright offensiveness here (Press #1 for English, Press #2 for Go Home!; part of the sickening "Save California" collection — personally, I'd like to save California from these kinds of ignorant nutjobs).

Regrettably, I also found the United for a Sovereign America (USA) website ("American Patriots for border security and comprehensive interior enforcement"), where they have posted the lyrics to the the "Press One For English" song (see also the tasteless YouTube video). And I also discovered the My Biggest Complaint website, where blog commenters of the sort Arnold recently complained about can find a welcome forum on such diverse topics as Press One For English, Stop Calling It "English as a Second Language", English As The Official Language Of The United States, American English Spelling, Mexican Immigrants – How Many More Can We Take, and so on.

I find the objection to "press 1 for English" incredibly curious. I would think that a large proportion of those who object would encourage businesses to act in their self-interest by whatever legal means necessary — and making multiple language options available for their (potential) customers is one easy, legal way to increase your business (even if you'll lose some idiots who can't bring themselves to press a simple button for their language). At least English is most often listed first, so that you can press 1 and skip past however many other language options there may be. (I have to admit that I've often been a little annoyed when I've had to scroll down an alphabetically sorted list of countries to get to "United States" in a drop-down menu — but I'm certainly not compelled to complain about something so trivial.)

1. ### Ryan Rosso said,

July 7, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

You're right, and I would argue that placing English first on that list makes it faster for English speakers to access their menu. If we couldn't press 1 for English, we would have to sit through all the options before getting to our own language!

This sort of complaint really reflects the linguistic laziness of a large section of Americans…

2. ### Nathan said,

July 7, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

I'm a conservative Republican, L1 English, L2 Spanish. These ridiculous slogans embarrass me all the time. I've never understood why language so often becomes a political issue. But it happens all over–Russia, China, Turkey, France, and of course the United States.

There is a great deal of frustration with the details and enforcement of US immigration policy right now, and this is a legitimate political subject. I for one believe our immigration laws need to be rationally liberalized and then strictly enforced. But I still don't see what it has to do with the languages people speak.

Maybe some folks assume that those speaking Spanish are more likely to be undocumented. I deal with Spanish-speaking immigrants, legal and otherwise, on a daily basis. From my own experience I would suggest there is no connection between an alien's legal status and his English proficiency.

I hate to dismiss someone's political opinions so easily, but there's probably some racism involved in many cases, and then there are surely those who still feel bad about flunking eighth grade Spanish. But I fail to see any more substantive justification.

What is bad about a company offering services in more than one language?

3. ### Kirk said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

I've had a similar thought in the past about the debate surrounding "Merry Christmas" vs "Happy Holidays" as a greeting/signage/etc in stores. Why would a responsible corporation or even a small business want to restrict themselves to one segment of the public? This could easily be cross posted at Marginal Revolution or Freakanomics. Great topic.

4. ### ed said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:02 pm

Dude, my dad complains about this ALL THE TIME. I have had many long..er…converstations with him and I have never gotten to the bottom of the objection. I'm convinced there is an outrage factory in Detroit that manufactures these things.

5. ### ed said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

He also doesn't like ATMs that make him choose English.

6. ### Emily said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

What is bad about a company offering services in more than one language?

You have to get into the mindset of people who say these things – English is America's language! If you want to live here, you should learn to speak it! To do otherwise is rude and disgraceful, and we coddle these immigrants much too much. (These are the arguments and not things I believe.)

It's horrible when you get down to it. It isn't linguistic laziness, it's xenophobia boiled down into a single message that other like-minded people will understand.

7. ### Brian said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

Sometimes I wonder if the outrage is connected to Spanish as the most common "Press 2" language. If I had a reason to set up a voicemail account, I'd be tempted to offer French or German but not Spanish just to see the reaction.

Then again, refusing to offer Spanish would make me no better than the people objecting to pressing 1 for English. Maybe I'd just include as many languages as possible.

8. ### James A. Crippen said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

Having talked with supporters about the “anything other than English is awful” attitude, it seems to come down to using language as a proxy for the immigration debate. The folks I have discussed this issue with are generally positive about the use of indigenous American languages, for example, and some are even positive about the use of languages indigenous in Mexico, like Nahuatl and K’iche. It’s just Spanish that bothers them.

I once asked one fellow about his opinion of Portuguese speakers from Brazil and he said it was fine, as long as they weren’t speaking Spanish. I then asked about Spanish speakers from Spain, and it turned out that this was acceptable as well. But not Spanish speakers from south of the US-Mexico border. So the issue is essentially racism/ethnicism, and language use is just a proxy.

9. ### Joni said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

I find it interesting that some folks put such a high value on knowing English as an only language. My guess is that most of the speakers of other languages in our country, and perhaps the world, also speak another language. Most of the time, that other language is English.

I once heard that you can buy in any language, but if you want to sell to someone, you'd better speak their language. Is that what's wrong with our balance of trade?

10. ### Benjamin Zimmer said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

At a recent town hall meeting in Pipersville, Pa., John McCain was asked, "Why, as an American, do I have to push a button to speak English or hear English?" More here.

11. ### kyle gorman said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

as a liberal and a linguist, i am disgusted by these things, but as an engineer, i think it's terribly poor design. an optimal way to code the speaker's choice of language is to use the most likely option should be default, the second one opt-out.

in other words, "empuje 2 por espanol" makes way more sense as the first statement (just let it go to english if they don't say anything).

12. ### kyle gorman said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

@ben: i was under the impression that guy was a plant.

13. ### Eric Bakovic said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

@ Ed: Have you asked your dad how he feels about Braille on ATMs, or about those headphone plugs that some of them have?

@ James: see my LL Classic post from late last year.

14. ### Eric Bakovic said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

@ Kyle: I thought about the default idea — but then the default language speakers would have to sit through the options before getting where they want to go. It seems like a better engineering solution to me to allow them to skip ahead.

15. ### Aaron Lemur Mintz said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

The problem with opt-out is that it increases the time waited by your default user, which is exactly the wrong behaviour: you want increasing time matched with increasing [language] rarity. Thus, not saying anything should go to an operator for unlisted languages, maybe?

I'm up in Canada, so every government service, every bank, and most other large corporations have this for english/french. As long as they're self-consistent I'm happy.

16. ### Eric Bakovic said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

@ Kyle again: "that guy" was a woman, according to the LA Times blog post that Ben linked.

17. ### ed said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

@Eric: I have not. But I'm sure he would change the topic. BTW, lately I've been using the German option on the ATM for kicks. I've got the ATM steps memorized, so I could probably use other languages that I don't know, but I'm scared. I need to stand up more for multilinguism.

18. ### Dan Milton said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

Has Illinois ever repealed an earlier exercise in xenophobia?

1923 Declaration of "American"
as the Official Language of Illinois

Whereas, Since the creation of the American Republic there have been certain Tory elements in our country who have never become reconciled to our republican institutions and have ever clung to the tradition of King and Empire; and
Whereas, America has been a haven of liberty and place of opportunity for the common people of all nations; and

Whereas, These strangers within our gates who seek economic betterment, political freedom, larger opportunities for their children and citizenship for themselves, come to think of our institutions as American and our language as the American language; and
Whereas, The name of the language of a country has a powerful psychological influence in stimulating and preserving the national ideal; and
Whereas, The languages of other countries bear the names of the countries to which they belong, … now therefore
Sec. 1. Be it enacted by the People of the State of Illinois, represented in the General Assembly: The official language of the State of Illinois shall be known hereafter as the "American" language and not as the "English" language.

Source: H.L. Mencken, The American Language, 4th ed., abridged, New York: Knopf, 1985, pp. 92-93.

19. ### Eric Bakovic said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:38 pm

@ Ed: the first time I saw Spanish as an option on an ATM (BofA, in 1988 or so), and for a while afterwards, I consistently used it under the probably false assumption that they were keeping track of the numbers and might choose to stop making the option available if it wasn't being used enough. My ATM now (Union Bank of CA) makes several options available, and I think it's great.

20. ### kyle gorman said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

@eric: such services do in fact exist…there's often a bit of intro narration which can give people a chance to opt-out of english [particularly if they don't understand it].

and i have always used "guy" is just a generic term, underspecified for gender unless i use it in a coordination with, say, "dolls". i can say "you guys better not eat my cake" in mixed company, can't i?

21. ### Eric Bakovic said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

@ Kyle: I guess I didn't understand the "opt-out" idea. Thanks for clarifying. And, I also use "you guys" as a gender-neutral second person plural pronoun, but never "guy" as generic term for "person". You're the first person I've heard of who does.

22. ### Jason Siegel said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

@Dan: The Illinois law has indeed been changed: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/JWcrawford/ill.htm

23. ### Just name said,

July 7, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

Do I have to boycott a company whose phone line says: "Press 1 for russian"?

24. ### mookers said,

July 7, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

@Kyle and Eric: Opt-out is a nice design solution, but can you imagine the outrage if a xenophobic person dialled into your service and the first thing they heard was "empuje 2 por espanol" ?

The gripe of these people is not about the mechanics of the interface. It seems to me that they would prefer the systemic omission of all non-English languages, period. Sure, it isn't logical for businesses to ignore a substantial portion of their customer base, but since when is racism logical?

25. ### Eric Bakovic said,

July 7, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

@ Just name: I can tell that your comment is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but other than that, I can't tell what in the world you might mean.

26. ### mookers said,

July 7, 2008 @ 5:23 pm

Also, does anybody else find it ironic that the 1923 Illinois declaration contained these words?

"Whereas, America has been a haven of liberty and place of opportunity for the common people of all nations"

Sounds logical to me :)

27. ### Nathan Myers said,

July 7, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

Nathan: You must find yourself embarrassed very often. To suggest "there's probably some racism involved in many cases" should take a prize for understatement. It's racism through and through. Not only that, it's deliberate, conscious political racism, the bedrock appeal of the "conservative" program since the mid-'60s.

Let's not be coy here.

28. ### Ryan Rosso said,

July 7, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

@Just name: If a company had their first option for Russian speakers, would the presentation of the option really be in English? :D

29. ### sharon said,

July 7, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

English people aren't much better when it comes to dealing with speakers of other languages on their doorsteps. Even when the language in question is not only indigenous to Britain but older than English.

Re: navigating to 'United States' in dropdown menus. You shouldn't need to scroll all the way down; click on the arrow for the menu and start typing in the word you're looking for, and it should take you straight there. (At least, it works for me in Firefox.)

30. ### Isabel Lugo said,

July 7, 2008 @ 6:00 pm

Can I boycott people who have that bumper sticker on their car?

31. ### Louis said,

July 7, 2008 @ 6:04 pm

On the subject of country lists in scroll-down menus, I find United States is most often first, followed by United Kingdom and then the rest of the countries in alphabetical order, which means I have to skip them to get to 'Australia'

I can't say it has ever earned more than a passing thought though, after all English speakers take it as a given that they're understood in almost every country they visit, why shouldn't Spanish speakers be given Spanish as an option in their adopted country?

32. ### Oskar said,

July 7, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

While the primary motivations behind these slogans are obviously xenophobia, I wonder if they aren't in part inspired by the headache-inducing experience of calling such numbers. You know, navigating for fifteen minutes through an elaborate set of menus only to find yourself back where you started (and yelling "Get me a f¤%#ing operator already!").

33. ### Timothy M said,

July 7, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

Since I started reading Language Log, I've seen a number of contributors speaking negatively of people who think English should be made the official language of the US, or who think that signs should only have English writing on them, etc. But has anyone ever given the argument why this is bad? Maybe I'm out of the loop, but I don't see why it would be so bad to, say, make English America's official language.

34. ### Ran Ari-Gur said,

July 7, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

I find it very confusing that a patriotic American should be opposed to having options. I can only hope that those who feel this way about phone-interface languages don't feel this way on Sunday morning1 or on Election Day.

1. Or Erev va-Voker Shabbat, or whenever.

35. ### Jack Collins said,

July 7, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

Did anyone else notice that several of the ostensibly anti-Mexican t-shirts, rather than Mexico's green, white, and red, were using the green, white and ORANGE tricolor of Ireland? (And Côte d'Ivoire, in the other order…) I'm sure the irony that very similar vitriol was flung at Irish immigrants 100 years ago is lost on the intended audience, but it made me chuckle.

36. ### Hot Tramp said,

July 7, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

This is exactly like the campaign to boycott companies that say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." The people in the dominant group are reacting strongly against any sign that their dominance is slipping. They hate that Americans who speak other languages and practice other religions have increasing political and economic power.

37. ### Larry said,

July 7, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

Some of these people who object to the use of (Mexican) Spanish in the U.S., were they to visit Mexico, would find that a large proportion of the merchandise in stores here comes with labels and instructions in English. Of course these sorts of people are unlikely to object to linguistic imperialism, as they probably think that anyone who can't understand English instructions, like the ones that came with my Chinese-made computer printer, doesn't deserve to own one.

By the way, was the Ford Expletive entering or leaving San Diego? Does the driver plan to boycott the city until it is renamed "Saint James"?

38. ### vanya said,

July 7, 2008 @ 7:21 pm

I alway use the Spanish option at the ATM. Partly to stand up for multi-lingualism, and partly because I'm just kind of curious to see how long it takes before I start getting Spanish junk mail.

39. ### James Wimberley said,

July 7, 2008 @ 7:27 pm

Spain itself is surprisingly multilingual. Labels typically come in Castilian and Catalan. Google España offers Galician and Basque as well. Our local hypermarket (I live near Malaga) is part of a Basque-owned chain, so I have the opportunity to learn useful Basque words for compost, baby wipes and so on. (It's hopeless; either the words are obvious imports from Spanish or they are the original Cro-Magnon, with no points of similarity to any language I know at all.) Rather touchingly, there's a sign in Arabic on the Malaga ring road for the ferry port of Algeciras , though any Moroccan who's made it that far by car from Paris or Düsseldorf presumably doesn't really need it. Castilian-speaking Spaniards do get annoyed when Basque politicians insist on using the language in the Cortès, which helps their cause no end.

40. ### Jack Bishop said,

July 7, 2008 @ 7:40 pm

Apropos of xenophobia presented through language, I've been struck by one aspect of the grocery store Kroger's three store-brand product lines (Value, Kroger's, and Private Selection): aside from the sundry other visual design choices in the packaging, the Value line is notably the only one which features Spanish descriptions of the enclosed product prominently. I'm not clear on whether this is a good-faith attempt to target low-income Spanish-speakers, a dog-whistle to xenophobes sneering at the lwo earning power of the Spanish-speaking community, or some sort of combination of the two (e.g., they'll label the lowest product line as a concession to Spanish-speakers, but won't put Spanish on the other two lines for fear of alienating English-speakers hostile to immigration), or some marketing strategy which is so obscure I can't even figure it out.

41. ### fev said,

July 7, 2008 @ 7:48 pm

The problem isn't Spanish; it's that south-north immigration has been securitized (to borrow a term from Barry Buzan, Ole Waever et al). For a (distressingly) large part of the US population, immigration has been moved out of the realm of politics-as-usual and into the realm of existential threats: more cops or more jobs won't solve it, because it's an out-and-out threat to the American Way of Life.

By the same process, people respond differently to the same event (meaning same body count, same explosion, same number of time zones away) when it's part of the War On Terror than when it's presented as something handled by the regular workings of the system.

So far, ridicule has not been shown to be a cure. But it certainly feels good when you do it …

42. ### mookers said,

July 7, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

@James Wimberley: I'd sure love to know the Basque word for baby wipes. Seriously. You can never know too much irrelevant trivia (note: irrelevant only to my current location/circumstances of course, not universally irrelevant).

@Nathan Myers: I realise this is off topic, but did you go to Monta Vista High?

43. ### kyle gorman said,

July 7, 2008 @ 8:05 pm

@eric: that's actually what (i think) verizon does. i spent a lot of time on hold with them at one point. the script reads:

female voice: "Welcome to Verizon!"
male voice [softer]: [something in spanish telling me to press a button if i want that]
female voice: [some introductory information about your call being recorded, then poses generic options for sales, billing, and tech support]

44. ### Philip said,

July 7, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

If English become the official language of the United States, then we'll have to get rid of Puerto Rico.

45. ### Nathan Myers said,

July 7, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

@mookers: No, Hilo High.

I wonder if LL should offer a prize for understatement. To bring this, resolutely, back on topic, perhaps our gracious host would prefer for entries to be in Spanish; press "1" if…

46. ### dr pepper said,

July 7, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

I don't believe that basque split from the other languages as far back as cro-magnon times. In fact i'm pretty sure it was at least 2 generations later.

As for the button pressing, there is a solution. As a liberal i find it unacceptably big brotherish, but true blue americans who want everyone to know how true blue they are, could carry id chips that would interface with communication terminals, including phones, to pre choose the english only option. In fact these chips could even choose dialect and phrasing for them so they never have to hear anything that sounds elitist, intellectual, or Hollywoodish.

47. ### Marion said,

July 7, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

I don't like the press-1 business because I use a dial phone.

48. ### David Schwartz said,

July 7, 2008 @ 10:37 pm

I personally hate ATMs that make me press a key for English. It's not about xenophobia, it's about interface efficiency. ATMs are hotspots, there's always a line and the people using them are always in a hurry. Every option takes several seconds for most people — they read the option, think about it, then answer it, all the while in fear that the wrong button will make their money dissapear.

I've just in a card with a magnetic strip on it. It can easily record my language preference and it can easily give me the option to remove or change that preference. It just doesn't.

Many other rarely-used options are buried in menus. For example, withdrawing $40 from checking takes two fewer selections than withdrawing$100 from checking. This is because $40 is the most common withdrawal amount and designers recognize that interface efficiency is important in an ATM machine. Perhaps if$40 were my most common withdrawal amount, I wouldn't mind pressing a button for English.

49. ### Eric said,

July 7, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

Should we also boycott companies that require us to press 2' for English?

50. ### Rick S said,

July 7, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

English chauvinism is not racism, it's a reaction to the fear of losing one's cultural identity, of becoming marginalized in a changing society. At least what I'm hearing is "they should learn English" rather than "all Mexicans should be deported" or "the US should close the border". In particular, I'm not hearing "even if they learn English, they're not welcome here"—at least not from the "why should I have to press a button?" ranks.

The solution is to address that fear. If you instead keep dismissively calling it racism, that's what it could become, because that's what happens when you use a label to ostracize large numbers of people—eventually they embrace it and form their own community (cf "We're here, we're queer, get used to it"). We need dialog, not name calling.

51. ### Daniel Barkalow said,

July 7, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

"Why, as an American, do I have to push a button to speak English or hear English?"

"I've found that annoying myself. I hate when I start talking on the phone, and all I get in response is a dial tone. But I've found that, if I wait long enough, I get a nice woman saying in English, 'If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and try again.' Next question."

Personally, I'm glad when the dang phone tree has at least one question I can actually answer correctly on the first try.

52. ### Nathan said,

July 8, 2008 @ 12:14 am

@Rick S: What does "losing one's cultural identity" look like? Why the hostility, the defensiveness, as if they were under some sort of attack? What is it that they fear–trading places with the linguistic minorities? Are the English chauvinists worried that providing other language options is a slippery slope leading to the death or marginalization of English? If so, why do they think that? And how can those of us who disagree persuade them that English is alive and well, that "press 1 for English" is good customer service rather than a cultural attack?

53. ### John Cowan said,

July 8, 2008 @ 1:29 am

I deal with opt-out services all the time, and they tend to be very annoying. The pattern is "Thank you for calling the Foo Bar Corporation. Please listen carefully to the following options, as our menu has recently changed. As your call is very important to us, please stay on the line so that your call can be answered by the first available customer service representative. Calls may be monitored or recorded", blah blah, blah, and then followed by the exact same spiel in Spanish, beginning with "Gracias" and ending with "Para continuar en español, marque por favor el 'ocho'". And for lack of a 1 to press, I have to sit through all of this!

54. ### sandra wilde said,

July 8, 2008 @ 2:18 am

1. The reason for the "press 1 for English" isn't political correctness but good business sense for companies that want to give good service to speakers of other languages. Somehow I suspect that the people with the bumper stickers would be the first to defend free enterprise in the abstract.
2. The equivalent in Canada is "Why should I have to read French on the cereal boxes?"

55. ### Bill Poser said,

July 8, 2008 @ 3:39 am

BTW, lately I've been using the German option on the ATM for kicks. I've got the ATM steps memorized, so I could probably use other languages that I don't know, but I'm scared. I need to stand up more for multilinguism.

In Vancouver the ATMs give a choice of English, French, and Chinese. My bank's website has those three plus Punjabi. The very best ATM that I have encountered, though, from a linguistic point of view, was in West Philadelphia. It provided a choice of eight languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German, Portuguese, and Polish as I recall. I used them all, though it took some courage to try Polish.

56. ### James Wimberley said,

July 8, 2008 @ 5:59 am

By special request of commenter mookers ( I hope this won't get me anathematised by LL's relevance police), here's the puff on the Eroski own-brand baby wipes:

Basque: Bere ehun leun eta harroa, haur-grabazioekin, zure haurtxoarena bezalako azalik finenak tratatzeko diseinatua dago.
Spanish: Su tejido suave y espojoso, con grabados infantiles, está diseñado para tratar las pieles más delicadas como la de tu bebé.

Note that this includes lots of ancient meanings (cloth, skin, baby) which are likely to generate a different vocabulary – though bébé is i think a recent import into Spanish.. The design printed on the wipes is a modern idea and so Basque seems to borrow the root graba- from Spanish.

57. ### Supergrunch said,

July 8, 2008 @ 8:25 am

This brings to mind the following comic:

http://xkcd.com/84/

58. ### James said,

July 8, 2008 @ 9:53 am

I live in Canada where it is perfectly normal to expect service in two languages, especially if it is a government service. In fact, if I have a complaint, its that I have to press 2 for English sometimes! Well, it doesn't actually bother me, I'm just used to English being first, much like the "complaint" of having to scroll down to find "United States". I live in the capital where switching or choosing languages is an everyday activity, and this complaint about Spanish on phones seems like such a waste of time.

The enginner from an ealier comment will be happy to know that many phone systems in heavily English-speaking areas makes English the default, with only the brief interlude: "pour le service en francais, appuyez sur le 2"

59. ### ed said,

July 8, 2008 @ 10:03 am

The very best ATM that I have encountered, though, from a linguistic point of view, was in West Philadelphia. It provided a choice of eight languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German, Portuguese, and Polish as I recall. I used them all, though it took some courage to try Polish.

The one I use in Center City Philadelphia has the same dizzying array of languages. It's the ones with non-roman alphabets that I am most afraid to try. Yesterday I chose Italian.

@Eric, the more I think about this, the more I think this is a manufactured controversy. I don't recall ever running accross a phone script that asked me to press 1 for English. Usually it's simply "To continue in Spanish, press 1" or something…

60. ### Malte said,

July 8, 2008 @ 10:07 am

I agree, really. Graphically and mnemonically, 'Press 3 for English' makes much more sense. 1 for Italian, 2 for, umm, Zulu. I could go on.

61. ### nezua said,

July 8, 2008 @ 10:17 am

"The folks I have discussed this issue with are generally positive about the use of indigenous American languages, for example, and some are even positive about the use of languages indigenous in Mexico, like Nahuatl and K’iche. It’s just Spanish that bothers them."

Spanish has been spoken on this continent and in the Southwest USA before the words "USA" ever were. The People's right to speak Spanish and be taught in Spanish and have all legal documents provided in Spanish were codified in the Treaty of Hidalgo Guadalupe, after the USA invaded Mexico on false pretenses and "bought" half of what is now the "USA."

People who fight the use of Spanish in the USA by American Citizens are either racists, proud of being monolingual and afraid they will look stupid if others speak another language, or just idiots. Period.

62. ### one press said,

July 8, 2008 @ 11:22 am

I am reminded of the slogan for a new and self-consciously Spanish-language cable network (?) I heard about recently:

Press 2 for English.

But the slogan is still in English, allowing non-Spanish speakers to get the joke.

63. ### Tim said,

July 8, 2008 @ 11:45 am

I know at least one voice menu here in Europe for pan-European customer service – based in the UK, and English comprises their single largest caller group, but which takes calls from several countries and languages as well – that opens up with a greeting, then says, in English, "For service in other languages, press 7 now." After a pause, if 7 hasn't been pressed, it continues in English. That seems to me to be the best solution when there are a large number of possible non-English languages.

64. ### mitchell ryan said,

July 8, 2008 @ 11:53 am

something interesting in response to those suggesting that language preference be coded in peoples phones or whatever. in quebec where french and english are both official and french is actually ridiculously (in my opinion) forced to be larger, grander, whatever, ATM cards have the language coded in them. my ATM card tells the ATM automatically that I am english, so there are no extra buttons to press. The same happens for French speakers. they have no options, the ATM for them is always automatically in French. Now, I must admit I don't know if this also works for other languages, Portuguese or Punjabi, in Montreal, for example, but it seems as though this pre-selection of language preference is not so difficult for Quebec, so why can't we do that here. Then people could just shut up about "press 1 for being an idiot" and everyone, regardless of preferred language, could save three seconds of valuable time when we want to withdraw some cash.

65. ### Admiral Lord Nelson said,

July 8, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

@Tim M.
It's up to you to come up for some rational reasons for making English the official language, if you think it is a good idea. It is rather hard to do, which is why most people here (everyone here?) is against it.

66. ### Carrie S. said,

July 8, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

I've just in a card with a magnetic strip on it. It can easily record my language preference and it can easily give me the option to remove or change that preference. It just doesn't.

In fact, my bank just recently did precisely that–I noticed about a month ago, as I don't use the ATM much. It let me set both my preferred language and the amount I get by hitting the "Fast Cash" button (which is not the same as the "Withdrawal" button). I was quite pleased; it means I take less time at the ATM, as do the other people ahead of me.

Now I wonder how much of that design modification was inspired by a desire for efficiency and how much by a desire to avoid morons. The list of possible languages is on the order of 10 long, IIRC.

67. ### Lisa said,

July 8, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

I think the objection is more about people coming here and not learning our language, and some apparently not even trying. When I go to a foreign country, I do my best to learn their language. I think it is a matter of politeness, of making an effort.

I work in an office complex where there is also a government representative. So we have protests and picket signs here sometimes. We had some picketers here demanding amnesty for illegal immigrants, and demanding it in Spanish. I did find this offensive. First, to come here illegally and then have the gall to demand amnesty, and secondly, to do it in Spanish.

If you want to live here, show some effort that you are willing to go by the rules, come here legally, and at least try to learn the language. That's what I do when I go to their countries.

And as for press 1 for English – why not just make it the default? What's so hard about that? Press a button for the other languages. Although this one doesn't bother me so much.

68. ### mookers said,

July 8, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

@James Wimberley: Thank you very much!
@mitchell ryan: I am a software engineer and sometime interface designer and I can tell you that making the interface streamlined and intuitive (even automatic as in your example) not only pleases the frequent/power users, but also has the beneficial side effect of quieting the idiots. Of course then they'll just go find something else to complain about.

69. ### Bob Kennedy said,

July 8, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

"I think the objection is more about people coming here and not learning our language, and some apparently not even trying."

This appears to be a root of some of the anti-Spanish rhetoric that is slightly distinct from xenophobia. But it is also not true. It is easy to hear Spanish spoken on the street in the US and assume the Spanish speaker does not want to learn English, but the current wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants wants to and does learn English at least as fast as the European wave of the late 19th & early 20th centuries did. Since none of us was around then, it's too easy for us to assume that those previous migrations learned English quickly without any problem. In fact, it used to take three generations – and there was as much xenophobia back then.

70. ### Mary Kuhner said,

July 8, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

It does seem strange that outside the US and Britain, the complaint is generally that English is a vigorous and spreading language which threatens to displace other languages (especially in the "everyone's second language" slot which was once held by Latin or French). Why is it considered such a sickly specimen at home, when it flourishes so strongly abroad?

I suppose one explanation could be that majority language status is bad for it–in which case we should encourage the Spanish speakers more, not less, so as to keep English vigorous. (Come to think of it, though my argument has been facetious, that would probably work–much of the appeal of English comes from its very free ability to borrow, or as James Nicolls put it, to pursue other languages into dark alleys and mug them for loose vocabulary.)

Mary

71. ### Nathan said,

July 8, 2008 @ 6:27 pm

@Lisa: When you go to a foreign country, you may do your best to learn their language, but you are very much in the minority.

The ugly Americans who want everyone to speak English, here and abroad, cannot use your argument.

72. ### Squander Two said,

July 8, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

(Sorry for the huge comment, but I got here late. To make up for it, I won't post any follow-ups.)

I object to the signs throughout the South of Spain saying things like "Real Fish 'n' Chips" and "Sky TV Here" and "Traditional English Pub". I'm sure some Spaniards object on nationalist grounds, but they'd have just as much of a point if they objected on aesthetic grounds. I've never been able to come up with a rational reason why Spanish in the USA or Punjabi in England or whatever in wherever should be less boorish and annoying than English in Spain, but, for some presumably irrational reason, I do agree that it is.

Hot Tramp,

> This is exactly like the campaign to boycott companies that say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." The people in the dominant group are reacting strongly against any sign that their dominance is slipping. They hate that Americans who speak other languages and practice other religions have increasing political and economic power.

Nonsense. Personally, I object to "Happy Holidays" because it encourages the pernicious and false idea that wishing a non-Christian "Merry Christmas" is somehow offensive. Witness the horribly smug humanity-free gits who self-congratulatingly criticise Band Aid because that silly Bob Geldof didn't realise that Ethiopia is predominantly Muslim and that the lyrics are therefore "insensitive". Such people are to be insulted, not encouraged.

Nezua,

> People who fight the use of Spanish in the USA by American Citizens are either racists, proud of being monolingual and afraid they will look stupid if others speak another language, or just idiots.

Maybe, but that's kind of beside the point, since what sparked the current friction in the first place was people fighting the use of Spanish in the USA by illegal immigrants, not by American citizens. And that's what it all comes down to, really, and I find it amazing that it seems to have occurred to none of the perfectly intelligent commenters here: people object to companies going out of their way to make life easier for their criminal customers. Now, you can have a sensible debate about changing the criteria for immigration, certainly, making it easier, perhaps, whatever. But the fact remains that, as the current law stands, huge numbers of Spanish-speakers in the US got into the country illegally and are therefore criminals as long as they stay there. And another unfortunate fact is that it is inevitable that Spanish-speakers who arrived legally or who were born in the US will tend to be associated with the illegal immigrants due to their common trait.

What I'm trying to say is that while, yes, a lot of the objection is irrational, it's not based on irrationality. It's based on an objection to people breaking the law. Which isn't racist.

73. ### Anon said,

July 8, 2008 @ 7:16 pm

"And another unfortunate fact is that it is inevitable that Spanish-speakers who arrived legally or who were born in the US will tend to be associated with the illegal immigrants due to their common trait."

Yeah, by racists.

74. ### Ran Ari-Gur said,

July 8, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

@Bob Kennedy: Of course, that could be taken as an argument that xenophobia is part of the American tradition. Immigrants and xenophobia are what made this country great. ;-)

@Squander Two, who wrote "Personally, I object to 'Happy Holidays' because it encourages the pernicious and false idea that wishing a non-Christian 'Merry Christmas' is somehow offensive": The problem is, this goes both ways. One could just as well object to "Merry Christmas" because it encourages the pernicious and false idea that wishing a Christian "Happy Holidays" is somehow offensive. I'm Jewish, and "Merry Christmas" never bothered me very much until certain people started making some sort of odd sociopolitical statement out of proudly disregarding my existence.

75. ### Timothy M said,

July 8, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

To Ran Ari-Gur: I don't think your analysis of Happy Holidays is quite right. This version of Happy Holidays* came about as a reaction to Merry Christmas, because people believed there was something wrong with indiscriminate use of the latter, thus they switched to the former. However, many people believe (rightly, in my opinion) that there is nothing wrong with wishing Merry Christmas to people in general, and therefore the use of Happy Holidays is a contradiction of that belief. In other words, the argument is not that one phrase is more offensive than the other, but that the phrase Happy Holidays perpetuates a philosophical framework with which some people disagree.

I see what you're saying though about the way this has all been politicized – the sides on the issue have been polarized, and it's as if you can't use either greeting without it being taken as some kind of statement about something. For me, if I'm making any kind of statement when I say "Merry Christmas" to people, it is this: I want you to have a merry Dec. 25th, which is a day I call Christmas. If you don't like that, then feel free to have a bad Dec. 25th, and I won't mind.

*as opposed to the version that is meant to say "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year" in one.

76. ### Dan T. said,

July 8, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

How come that YouTube video has "Britney Spears Nude" as its closest similar video in the links the site provldes next to it?

77. ### Feynmaniac said,

July 9, 2008 @ 12:32 am

How do you know you have life too good? You waste time complaining that you have to press 1 for English, that people say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", that courts order money to be changed so that the blind can tell bills apart, etc. while millions in the world are dying needlessly due to lack of adequate food and medicine.

Many of those would be grateful if they could afford wasting time on this trivial shit.

78. ### Emily said,

July 9, 2008 @ 10:51 am

"many people believe (rightly, in my opinion) that there is nothing wrong with wishing Merry Christmas to people in general"

Timothy M: Why? Do you believe similarly that nobody should be offended by being wish happy Hanukkah? (I seek information. I'm not trying to be sneaky to prove a point.)

If you believe that anyone should be able to wish whatever holiday tidings they celebrate to others without being offended, okay, I can see that. But if the idea is that Christmas is somehow separate, well, that isn't really okay.

79. ### Emily said,

July 9, 2008 @ 10:52 am

"by being wish"

Argh! By being WISHED.

80. ### Kevin R said,

July 9, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

Then again, refusing to offer Spanish would make me no better than the people objecting to pressing 1 for English. Maybe I'd just include as many languages as possible.

"For English, press 0001. For Spanish, press 0002. … For Lithuanian, press 0183. … For Anglo-Saxon, press 0641. … For Klingon, press 1452 …"

81. ### Joe B said,

July 9, 2008 @ 5:01 pm

Weird – I work at a call centre, and two hours after reading this post, someone nearby stood up and repeated, incredulously, what a member had just told here: "When I got your menu, I was told to press 1 for English. This is America and our language is English! I should not have to press 1!"

I had never heard of this before now (I am in Canada) Strange how these things spread like wildfire.

82. ### nprnncbl said,

July 9, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

@Tim: Why does it make the most sense to give non-English speakers a request in English that they must respond to, given that if you don't understand English, you won't understand the directions? (Or did I miss some sarcasm?)

@one press: of course it's in English, for the same reason.

@Squander Two:

Personally, I object to "Happy Holidays" because it encourages the pernicious and false idea that wishing a non-Christian "Merry Christmas" is somehow offensive.

How can you claim that it is false that this is offensive? It may not offend you, but are you claiming that no one is offended by "Merry Christmas", or those who are offended by it are not actually offended? Maybe you meant that the greeting is not meant to be offensive, but do you truly fail to see how someone might be bothered, offended, feel marginalized or excluded, or otherwise object?

Even though you, personally, object to the greeting "Happy Holidays"?

…people object to companies going out of their way to make life easier for their criminal customers.

But isn't this an expression of the very racism that people are commenting on? That if you speak Spanish, you must be a criminal? (Anon put it best.)

83. ### Timothy M said,

July 10, 2008 @ 6:41 am

Emily: "If you believe that anyone should be able to wish whatever holiday tidings they celebrate to others without being offended, okay, I can see that."

Yes, that's what I believe. Well, in general, anyway. It's a hard issue to put absolutes on. For example, if someone wished me a "Happy worship the Devil Day," I think that would bother me some, because to me the idea of such a holiday is too distasteful. …I guess by the same token, if someone had a very strong philosophical objection to the idea of Christmas, I would understand them for being upset at being wished a merry Christmas, as well.

But I think in general, such well-wishings are harmless and can be taken in good humor. The idea that we should use Happy Holidays because Merry Christmas is somehow foisting one's ideas on others is a little too strong, in my view.

84. ### Emily said,

July 10, 2008 @ 8:42 am

Ah, but that's your view. I'm not a Christian and I only celebrate Christmas for the sake of my in-laws; my family doesn't celebrate it. I'm happy to do so with them, but I am not happy to be assumed to be a Christian by every other person during that particular time of the year simply because I happen to be a white person living in America.

It isn't harmless. Not anymore. It's identifying "You are like me" and there is often no gracious way for me to step out of being identified that way. You say you'd be offended if someone wished you a Happy Worship the Devil Day; am I not permitted to have those same feelings about Christmas?

85. ### Arnold Zwicky said,

July 10, 2008 @ 9:56 am

To Supergrunch, about the xkcd cartoon: Eric Bakovic blogged on it on Language Log last year and elicited a huge number of comments on his own blog; the posting and comments are available here.

86. ### Arnold Zwicky said,

July 10, 2008 @ 11:02 am

Once again, the perils of thread drift. Hot Tramp introduced a putative parallel to objections to "Happy Holidays", and then a new thread took off on this topic, with follow-ups by Squander Two, Ran Ari-Gur, Timothy M, Emily, nprnncbl, Timothy M again, and Emily again. This is annoying on its own, but it happens that this is a topic we've discussed at considerable length over the years on Language Log:

Geoff Pullum, 12/2/05: Christmas trees and holiday trees:
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002683.html
Geoff Nunberg, 12/22/06: Zogby: Bill O’Reilly’s bitches?:
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003954.html
Geoff Pullum, 12/25/06: Merry… umm… Christmas, Will!:
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003963.html
Arnold Zwicky, 12/17/07: Victims and etymology:
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005228.html
Ben Zimmer, 12/25/07: Christmas and “political correct(ed)ness”:
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005259.html

The analogy between the offense-taking discussed in the original posting and the offense-taking in the "Merry Christmas"/"Happy Holidays" matter is, it seems to me, very weak — another reason to be annoyed at the thread drift. There is at least one more topic worth discussion in the "Merry Christmas"/"Happy Holidays" issue, namely when it's reasonable (or not) to attribute *motives* to other people's choice of one variant over another. I have a few other cases I'll fold into a future Language Log posting.

87. ### Admiral Nelson said,

July 10, 2008 @ 11:48 am

Arnold Zwicky said, 'once again, the perils of thread drift…This is annoying…The analogy … is, it seems to me, very weak — another reason to be annoyed '

For someone so easily annoyed by deviation from the thread, Arnold, I'm a bit surprised that you're going so far off topic here, and at such length.

88. ### Randy MacDonald said,

July 10, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

On a related note, having to choose my country of origin after Cambodia and Cameroon is certainly a trivial annoyance, this 'Press '1' for English' seems much more so. hiho. I don't harbour any resentment when a spell check program from our neighbour to the south marks up all my text, it is just another trivial annoyance. It's no big deal, eh?

89. ### Jim Roberts said,

July 10, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

My company, an HMO, recently implemented a Spanish-speaking line in-house (we've been using translators for years, as required by law) and every employee in our predominantly Caucasian New Hampshire staffroom expressed nothing but pleasure at the thought. I wonder how long it'll be before we get our first complaint about our phone system being un-American.

On a side note, I have a habit of answering the phone in either French, Spanish or German just to throw off the telemarketers. Evidently it worked because one of the times I answered in English, the person responded in Spanish. I was confused until he said, "Oh, we had this down as a Spanish-speaking household."

Which would make me un-American, were it not for my being Canadian already.

90. ### Kate said,

July 11, 2008 @ 10:29 am

I still think basic English proficiency should be a requirement of citizenship in the USA. It is neither xenophobia nor intolerance that prompts me to say this. A common language brings people together, a balkanized US with large swaths of people who cannot and aren't interested in communicating with each-other is a recipe for disaster. Speak it at home if you want to, go to language school – but the US is an English speaking nation and should remain as such.

91. ### Nathan said,

July 11, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

@Kate: Basic English proficiency is a requirement for naturalization, but not for citizenship by birth. I don't think anyone wants to see "a balkanized US", nor do I think the possibility exists. And of course, most of the "people who cannot and aren't interested in communicating with" others are monolingual English speakers. While Spanish-speaking immigrants overflow ESL classrooms and spend large sums on English-learning materials, what is the Anglo majority doing to bridge the language barrier?

I'll agree that, to a first approximation, the US is an English-speaking nation. But why should it "remain as such"? There's nothing inherently superior about English, although it's definitely one of the most useful languages at this point in history.

92. ### Emily said,

July 11, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

It is neither xenophobia nor intolerance that prompts me to say this.

Simply saying so doesn't make it true. (I'm not saying it's false, either, but your other statements seem to contradict this.)

Additionally, English is a very popular language here. That doesn't make it an English-speaking nation.

93. ### Mossy said,

July 12, 2008 @ 10:21 am

My brother also objects to "press 1 for English," and yet he does not fit any of the stereotypes posters have assigned to him. His politics are liberal, he doesn't support measures to restrict immigration, he speaks and reads 7 languages (including Spanish), and is a far from a xenophobe as a person can be. He gets that it's a marketing/commercial measure, but it bothers him. I think his fear is that Spanish will become the de facto second "official" language in the US. The problem with that is what he is already seeing on occassion — people with poor English skills in official positions — so poor that you have to struggle to be understood. That is a large shift in paradigm and expectations — that you cannot expect an official in the US to speak fluent English.

Perhaps the other issue is that we are second generation Americans and our parents' first languages were Slavic — and there is a very small population of Spanish-speakers where we live.

94. ### Antoine Cassar said,

July 13, 2008 @ 7:35 am

Greetings from Luxembourg. I seem to be reading a lot recently about monolingual fanatiscm (can I call it that?) in the USA. I didn't realise the situation had become so negative in this respect. Poetry mixing English with other tongues wouldn't go down too well in certain sectors of the US, would it? I hope such xenophobes are a small minority, although the selling of t-shirts and bumper stickers appears to point in a different direction. How very saddening.

95. ### Xanthir, FCD said,

July 15, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

Antoine Cassar:
Luckily, the use of bumper stickers usually means you are a minority. The actual widespread ideas don't need bumper stickers, because they don't need to be pointed out. They are merely assumed.

Mossy:
I would just remind your brother that the multitude of immigrant waves before Mexicans followed the exact same pattern. This has been said before, but it really must be repeated (else history will be the one repeating). First-generation immigrants generally don't learn the native language well or at all. Second-generation immigrants generally are bilingual in their parent's language and the native language. Third-generation immigrants generally *only* speak the native language (at least fluently – they can likely speak a small amount of the other language, if only so they can talk to grandma).

Immigrant enclaves can draw this process out, but it's still generally an inevitable progression, and has happened over and over again in America's history. The same will happen again with Spanish.