September 17th, 2010

America: An English-Only Nation?


photo credit: thejcgerm

Dale un beso a tu mamá. Kom och läsa en bok med mig. Where are your ears?

These are all things my 16 month old son understands.

Raising a trilingual child has made me very concerned with one of the related arguments in the general anti-"illegal immigration" movement. Many people feel that America should be an English-only nation. Indeed, thirty states (Utah included) have passed laws declaring English to be the “official language”. Perhaps summarizing the movement best, President Theodore Roosevelt once said: “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”

Why should English be elevated as the only “official” language in a country whose diversity and historical “melting pot” label are so revered? If a family of immigrants from Colombia come to America, decide to become citizens, and pay just as much in taxes as anybody else, why should the government prohibit them from communicating with the people living off of their tax dollars, simply because they prefer to speak another language? To be sure, the government cannot and should not employ individuals and produce documents in every language on the Earth—that would be far too cost-prohibitive. A more inclusive threshold, however, can accommodate the majority of citizens whose desire or ability to speak English does not measure up to an arbitrary standard imposed by bureaucrats and legislators.

Even if that threshold is placed as high as 10%, the only other language that would qualify would be Spanish. Clearly, the refusal to accommodate such a commonly spoken language is directly related to the general anti-immigrant sentiment that leads people to demand mass deportations, barbed-wire fences, and other draconian policies. Thus, the demand for English being the only official language is, just like federal immigration policy itself, rooted in racism.

As I speak only in Spanish to my son, I ponder what opportunities he will have, as he grows older, to interact with other people in that language. I wonder what message we send our youth, my son included, when we implicitly label all non-English languages as being substandard. I try to think of why the government spends hundreds of millions of dollars teaching adults a second language for foreign policy and military purposes, while a far superior method of creating a muti-lingual workforce is to teach children. Yet, in a culture where linguistic segregationists are vocal and persuasive, our youth grow up in an environment that treats English the way Hitler’s youth were instructed to regard the supposedly “pure Aryan race”.

In a time when the world grows smaller through instant communication, America should be embracing the diversity for which it has been historically known. We should be looking at the skills adults need and infusing them into our children. Rather than sending a message to our youth of English being a superior language which should stand supreme in contrast with all others, we should embrace the vast ethnic varieties which exist, and welcome people of all speaking abilities in any language. America, rather than making others conform to her own linguistic standard, should lay down a welcome mat in multiple languages.

18 Responses to “America: An English-Only Nation?”

  1. John Williams
    September 17, 2010 at 11:01 pm #

    I keep wondering if the English-only people have ever heard of Puerto Rico.

  2. Jeremy
    September 18, 2010 at 12:38 am #

    Interesting thought.

    I think part of the problem actually comes from our diverse melting-pot background. There are so many possibilities, it’s much easier to have everyone standardize rather than try to play favorites with different cultures.

    Learning a second language is like learning to play the piano. I think it’s very beneficial and I would encourage someone with interest to do so. It will likely open doors to places you otherwise could not go, experiences you could not otherwise posess.

    However, I don’t think that requiring everyone to learn to play the piano is the correct route either. Who is to say that learning to play the piano is any better than learning sign language or morse code?

    Thinking about it I think that we are doing alright here. This is already happening to a degree un-officially. I’m not sure how you’d accomplish this other than persuasion and doing essentially what you’re doing with your children. This isn’t something that’s a short term change even if everyone decided it was a good idea to start tomorrow.

    I also don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here, just a path that we as a society will choose to walk.

    And for the record, I think it’s cool you’re trying to be tri-lingual in your household!

  3. alejandra
    September 18, 2010 at 8:52 am #

    I’m an immigrant, I think knowing many languages is wonderful and important. I also think making English the official language of the US is necessary. There are so many languages and cultures that if we don’t choose one as a nation we will keep segregating and not communicating with our neighbors. I think the reasons for the government and certain groups to encourage English are far more benign that you are making them out to be, Hitler??!!
    Some of the reasons to choose one language are to unite the people, monetary reasons, education, safety.
    I teach my kids Spanish at home, I think most kids should be taught a second language, but I also make sure they speak English and learn it well. Knowing English allows them to talk to our Korean neighbor, to the Armenian family across the street and to their Caucasian school mates.
    If we all just spoke our own native languages, wouldn’t that end up separating us?

  4. a concerned mommy
    September 18, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    Racism? Seriously? I agree with Alejandra. I myself live in a trilingual home but think this is a state’s rights issue. It’s costly and a headache to make sure that all people of all languages can read DMV forms. A person should learn the language of the people wherever they live, Utah or Puerto Rico, or they will have a hard time being a part of society, and how is that kind to coddle them into feeling that they don’t need to learn English while we go out of our way to speak Dutch to them? We bend over backwards to make our kids trilingual, and that’s great, but shouldn’t there be some emphasis on learning the language that is used almost exclusively here? We don’t have to make a national official language, but if the states want to do it to save some money and encourage unity, then why not? The racism argument is really not making any sense here.

  5. Connor
    September 18, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    ACM, note that I did not say that those who support the law or idea are racists themselves, but only that the underlying policy is itself based on race (or, at least language, which is closely tied to race.) I expound more on the argument in my post on illegal immigration.

  6. a concerned mommy
    September 18, 2010 at 11:08 am #

    Thus, the demand for English being the only official language is… rooted in racism.

    If that demand comes from the people then you are calling those people racist without considering other possible motivations. I just think that’s unfair to assert.

    I have no problem accommodating Spanish-only-speakers, but they still should be encouraged to learn English, just as we should take it upon ourselves to learn a little Spanish while we help them learn English. I’m not for a proclaimed national language necessarily, but I think it’s pretty self-evident that we already have one, and if the people care to be U.S. citizens you would think they would want to be able to communicate with their fellow citizens in that language. Instead of admitting that, though, we’re trying to take away the natural consequences of not trying to learn the language this country is run with, and for some people we’re just creating a crutch that’s hurting more than it’s helping.

    National language or not, it’s essential to learn English to thrive here. And I hardly think it’s racist to admit that, or to make it official, though I’m not for making it official since it already is self-evident, and I don’t want to make it a government right to tell us what language is official or what language we have to be able to speak in order to thrive in society. Society has already decided that.

    For the record, Connor, I agree with you on immigration.

  7. mormonlibertarian
    September 18, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    goodness, I think that it’s ‘fun’ sometimes to talk about ideas–

    we all need to.

    But right now, with the economy being so rough (and I am on the front lines; it’s ROUGH from my stance)–

    I think it is almost futile to worry about this–

    So, is a group of people going to suggest that Congress pass a law to enforce an official American English–and that no translations, etc., be allowed?

    With what money will THIS be enforced?

    This almost feels to me a bit like putting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, rather than building a fence at the top of the cliff, or something else ‘corny’ like that that I once heard–
    or closing the barn doors after the cows have all fled–

    I really am trying to lighten this up–

    :)

    There are SO many things gone awry in this sad country of ours–

    whether or not a ‘national’ language would help seems a little moot at this point–

    having said that, I think that language is important, and I do speak several languages myself, and I have been enriched by it–

    and I think it is very sad that so many ancestral languages have been lost–

    I think that if people want to communicate, they will–

    it should be a freedom to choose how–

    as for immigration, at this point, trying to stop it is rather like trying to pick pieces of a particular veggie out of a cooked stew–

    very hard–

    Things got out of control a long time ago, and it’s so very complicated–

    but that is just the opinion of someone who is trying not to be too cynical but not being, perhaps, very successful–

    just my opinion–

    probably everyone else is just as ‘right’ as I am–

    :)

  8. Edward
    September 18, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    This notion that non-english speakers in the US need to be “encouraged” to learn English by having government documents only in English is pretty silly. Have any of those suggesting this actually lived in a foreign, non-english speaking country? There is A LOT of “encouragement” to learn the native language just by being there. The 3+ years I spent living in Eastern Europe were fraught with frustrations about not being able to understand and speak the language fluently. After 3 years of study and immersion in the language I could understand fairly well, yet my accent and grammar was still the subject of many disparaging remarks. To be quite honest, it made me feel bad that some people were not willing to look beyond my difficulty in learning their language. Heaven knows I was trying. I would hope that no immigrant to the US would have to feel that they are less of a person because they haven’t yet mastered English. Some of them never will master it. For adults especially no matter how they study some will never speak English fluently.

    Government transactions accommodating a secondary language with a sizable demand in a particular area is a matter of decency and acceptance and does not discourage or make a person feel that they no longer need to learn English. Once again, this shouldn’t be something that is cost-prohibitive to the city–but really if Wall-Mart and Lowes can accommodate other languages, then I don’t think the cost is so much we should insist on a nation-wide or state-wide English only policy on the basis of cost. I would certainly be opposed to policies that required that all government transactions be conducted in many languages. But in some areas and in some cases it makes sense to accommodate non-english speakers.

    And “unity” really has so little to do with language. I don’t feel very unified with my neighbors up the street because of how they choose to use their English vocabulary against me. Yet I feel more unified with a new immigrant that doesn’t speak English because I know how they feel and I know that they are in pursuit of happiness in this free country just like me.

    If English-only laws aren’t based on cost and if it can’t really be proven that everyone speaking English bestows some magical sense of unity upon all of us, then we begin to see that such laws are indeed rooted in racism as Connor says.

  9. a concerned mommy
    September 18, 2010 at 11:37 pm #

    Do we really have to keep going on labeling people as racists when they could just be misguided?

  10. Edward
    September 19, 2010 at 9:27 am #

    People are misguided and pass racists laws.

  11. dhillman
    September 19, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    I agree with Alejandra–she wrote what I was thinking.

  12. Brian
    September 19, 2010 at 6:36 pm #

    In response to: “If a family of immigrants from Colombia come to America, decide to become citizens, and pay just as much in taxes as anybody else, why should the government prohibit them from communicating with the people living off of their tax dollars, simply because they prefer to speak another language?”

    I haven’t heard of any state governments prohibiting people from communicating with anyone else in non-English languages.

  13. Clumpy
    September 19, 2010 at 7:26 pm #

    Do we really have to keep going on labeling people as racists when they could just be misguided?

    I definitely agree with this. I think that the reality is much more subtle than mere issues of racism (though Connor’s “rooted in racism” comment I find absolutely true as well). I think that many of these people are tribalist in their views – in other words, they tend to associate with people who have similar views, outlooks and upbringings as themselves, and be put off by ambiguity and the idea of considering their philosophies and backgrounds to be just one of many, none inherently more valid.

    In my experience most people who support policies seen as “racist” are no more inherently racist than anybody else, though perhaps more likely to be put off by the idea of having to see another culture or philosophy as equal, worthy of consideration or respect. Tribalism includes a stripe of racism, to be fair, but is more informed by ego, tradition and fear of becoming irrelevant than actual hatred of other races. “Misguided” seems to be the best word, as I still believe they’re decent people in their hearts, and I think back to times I’ve stubbornly held on to a foolish view or opinion and hope others would afford me the same benefit of a doubt when I screw up.

    So when I hear shifty celebrity politicians deciding who is and who is not a “real American,” I don’t see racism in their base’s cheers, just fear of the unknown and a restrictive black-and-white worldview that clouds thought.

  14. Dave P.
    September 20, 2010 at 8:09 am #

    To some Americans, English is the only language that exists in the world (though a lot of these can’t even find their home state on a map, so that says something).

  15. J. Harrison
    September 21, 2010 at 11:03 pm #

    “Racist” is a word thrown around far too easily these days.

    I have a six-year old adopted sister. She is black. I love her, play with her. I do the dishes with her. I reprimand her when she is misbehaving. I praise her when she does something well. She is my sister.

    But I do not accept that I am Racist for simply wanting MY language spoke in MY country. I may be intolerant, but I am not Racist.

    Racist for me means rejecting somebody on the color of their skin, but not only rejecting them. It means persecuting them, physically, mentally and emotionally. Its cultural terrorism.

    Does cultural terrorism extend to me not wanting pamphlets that are written in twelve languages for the sake of “diversity.”

  16. Jeffrey T
    September 22, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    J. Harrison,

    Read Clumpy’s remark earlier.

  17. Shane
    September 22, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    How can it be “racist” to declare an official language? Language should serve to unify a nation, to streamline it’s political and business interactions, and help its citizens communicate with each other?

    I’m tri-lingual myself, and I would encourage EVERYONE to learn another language or two – it’s great for practical reasons, and it helps you to more fully appreciate other cultures.

    HOWEVER, when talking about communication within the United States, doesn’t it make practical sense for all citizens to at least be able to function in one unifying language? I don’t think (most) people are upset when immigrants speak their native languages – it’s when they CAN’T speak (or at least communicate somewhat in) english.

    Granted there’s a lot of ugly sentiment expressed in this debate, and there’s a lot of fear relating to immigration issues. I don’t know if we need an OFFICIAL declaration of a national language, but it should be common sense that if you live in a country, you should be able to communicate with others in that country.

  18. Clumpy
    September 22, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    @J. Harrison

    Your country?

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