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Señorita Ruth on: English Only Pt. 2

Are They Talk­ing About Me?
What are the ide­o­log­i­cal impli­ca­tions of choos­ing an offi­cial lan­guage? What kind of under­ly­ing belief sys­tem does it betray? A major marker of cul­ture and iden­tity, lan­guage sep­a­rates worlds of expe­ri­ence. And when it’s not your own, it’s often uncom­fort­able to have to deal with. Basic ques­tions that seem both ludi­crous and star­tlingly wor­ri­some express thoughts and assump­tions that begin to sur­face along the lines of “Are they talk­ing about me?” This may appear para­noid and self-centered, but is also a reflec­tion of the lin­guis­tic iso­la­tion mono­lin­gual Amer­i­can Eng­lish speak­ers expe­ri­ence on a daily basis. The unique geo­graph­i­cal posi­tion, along with the desires of the founders of the coun­try, have com­bined to cre­ate an insu­lar envi­ron­ment for Eng­lish, much more so than in other parts of the world. In addi­tion, Amer­i­can cit­i­zens speak one of the world’s most influ­en­tial lan­guages, afford­ing them lit­tle moti­va­tion to learn a sec­ond lan­guage beyond the cur­sory high school or col­lege cur­ricu­lum expe­ri­ence. As any bilin­gual speaker will tell you, that’s not really speak­ing two lan­guages at all.

So we have a nat­u­rally pro­tected envi­ron­ment for “one nation, one lan­guage” to func­tion as the ide­o­log­i­cal as well as the policy-based modus operandi. Our fore­fa­thers did not feel it was the role of gov­ern­ment to dic­tate to the peo­ple what lan­guages they should speak. Fur­ther­more, it was not uncom­mon in the early days of this coun­try, as it is now, for legal doc­u­ments, pam­phlets, and other offi­cial or quasi-official com­mu­ni­ca­tions to be pub­lished in the myr­iad of lan­guages that rep­re­sent our multi-cultural roots. Span­ish, Ger­man, French, and Dutch are a few of the first lan­guages immi­grants brought with them to add to the cul­tural and lin­guis­tic land­scape of a coun­try made up of trans­plants. From a healthy lin­guis­tic com­pe­ti­tion, Eng­lish emerged as the early win­ner, the lan­guage to bind speak­ers of many lan­guages together. To that effect, it is the de facto, con­ven­tional and fully accepted pri­mary lan­guage.

Nested within our overtly anglo­phonic cul­ture we have a long-standing tra­di­tion of multi-lingualism. Ves­tiges of true bilin­gual­ism exist in our efforts to expose chil­dren at every level of edu­ca­tion to other West­ern Euro­pean lan­guages. Even in the face of this tra­di­tion and ide­o­log­i­cal moti­va­tions behind cre­at­ing a coun­try with­out an offi­cial lan­guage, how­ever, there is a voice that in the form of leg­is­la­tion has asked both fed­eral and state-level gov­ern­ments to adopt Eng­lish as the offi­cial lan­guage of the United States. The cur­rent efforts by orga­ni­za­tions such as U.S. Eng­lish would see Eng­lish adopted as the offi­cial lan­guage, and in such a capac­ity dis­place lan­guages spo­ken in fam­i­lies and minor­ity com­mu­ni­ties more than ever before.

What has Eng­lish done for you?
Regard­less of its (lack of) offi­cial sta­tus, Eng­lish is the lan­guage of the peo­ple. Over­whelm­ingly used as the pri­mary lan­guage in all walks of life, Eng­lish is trans­mit­ted suc­cess­fully to the kids of every gen­er­a­tion, and of every cul­tural back­ground. The Amer­i­can pub­lic school sys­tems guar­an­tee trans­mis­sion by using Eng­lish both in the class­room and in the play­ground. It’s the lan­guage of for­mal edu­ca­tion as well as of infor­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It’s present in every form of media, and is highly sought as a sec­ond lan­guage around the world and by non-native speak­ers in the U.S. Stud­ies show that even those with no for­mal sec­ond lan­guage edu­ca­tion, sim­ply by being immersed in the cul­ture, acquire a func­tional grasp of the lan­guage. Its far-reaching global sta­tus is rec­og­nized in Africa as well as Europe and Asia. It’s very appar­ent to the world that speak­ing Eng­lish is asso­ci­ated with socioe­co­nomic oppor­tu­ni­ties not avail­able in many people’s first lan­guage, there­fore it is desired. Most impor­tant to real­ize is that, even if not every per­son speaks Eng­lish in the U.S., those person’s chil­dren will. Remov­ing the abil­ity of non-fluent cit­i­zens and vis­i­tors the abil­ity to inter­act with the gov­ern­ment and within their own com­mu­ni­ties by enforc­ing Eng­lish Only doesn’t change the actu­al­i­ties of lan­guage use: Peo­ple have dif­fer­ent capac­i­ties to learn and retain a sec­ond lan­guage, but as long as that lan­guage is being taught as a first lan­guage, the sta­tus quo is nat­u­rally main­tained by the major­ity lan­guage.

English Only pol­icy seeks to reaf­firm a sta­tus that it has no right to either cre­ate or uphold. A lan­guage becomes widely used and influ­en­tial through use. Award­ing it a legal sta­tus changes lit­tle in the way it prop­a­gates through the greater cul­ture and soci­ety. Edu­ca­tion, the media, and the vari­ety of social exchanges that occur in Eng­lish are respon­si­ble for Eng­lish being the major­ity lan­guage. When under­stood in this light, the Eng­lish Only move­ment is hol­low and mean­ing­less, a mis­placed effort that could and should be used to attend to other, more press­ing mat­ters regard­ing the sta­tus of lan­guage and lan­guages in this coun­try.

Further­more, there are the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of legal­iz­ing a human cog­ni­tive facil­ity. Like many other efforts in the past to reg­u­late human behav­ior and cat­e­go­rize peo­ple accord­ing to eth­nic or genetic mark­ers, this effort will only work to strengthen the bound­aries of an arti­fice upon our cul­ture that we would do bet­ter with­out. Giv­ing Eng­lish legal sta­tus directly works against the social mech­a­nisms we have in place by which to iden­tify our­selves and each other. Gov­ern­ing people’s spo­ken lives will incur costs both finan­cial and cul­tural that we should not be pre­pared to shoul­der, and will doom yet another gen­er­a­tion to a pur­ga­tory of self-identity as the same words echo as have in the past: “I don’t know my mother tongue.” We as a soci­ety are still deal­ing with the after-effects of the Native Amer­i­cans who for­sook Navajo and other lan­guages after suf­fer­ing through board­ing schools and the rural ele­men­tary school chil­dren who suf­fered phys­i­cal pun­ish­ment for speak­ing Span­ish in the class­rooms of old Texas and the South­west. These peo­ple kept their own chil­dren from learn­ing their mother tongue to the detri­ment of their fam­ily and cul­tural iden­tity, and encour­aged them to only speak Eng­lish. The fal­lacy in these efforts is that the chil­dren of immi­grants become so quickly accul­tur­ated that any overt effort to do so by pre­vent­ing the learn­ing of another lan­guage is redun­dant and effec­tively irrel­e­vant. It should be the ideal of a pro­gres­sive, diverse soci­ety to encour­age a healthy lin­guis­tic home envi­ron­ment. Bilin­gual­ism should not have a neg­a­tive value when it comes to cit­i­zen­ship, par­tic­i­pa­tion and inte­gra­tion within the greater soci­ety.

English Only poli­cies will cast a reign of shad­ows over minor­ity lan­guage speak­ers. Legal immi­grants and Native Amer­i­cans alike who use the same ser­vices and inter­act with the same gov­ern­ment as native Eng­lish speak­ers stand to lose oppor­tu­ni­ties in offi­cial capac­i­ties. The time, effort, and money it takes to trans­late offi­cial U.S. doc­u­ments into other lan­guages has always been devoted to the same task since the 1700s, and in no way eclipses other gov­ern­ment spend­ing fig­ures which may or may not be as sig­nif­i­cant. Beyond the bureau­cratic con­se­quences, by accept­ing this pol­icy the coun­try runs the threat of expe­dit­ing the rate at which some lan­guages become extinct.

Ethics and Progress
Beyond the ques­tions of legal­ity, which on their own are sub­stan­tial, we also deal with the more abstract but just as cru­cial con­cepts that influ­enced the orig­i­nal deci­sion to do with­out an offi­cial lan­guage. It’s been pointed out that the fore­fa­thers couldn’t have pre­dicted how many lan­guages we have to deal with. Yet I won­der how sym­pa­thetic they would be to our plight if they com­pared their tech­nol­ogy to ours. We ben­e­fit from dig­i­tal media that have brought the world closer together, stan­dard­iz­ing and mak­ing avail­able more lan­guages to more peo­ple. It would stand to rea­son that we uti­lize these advan­tages to ben­e­fit all. How­ever, even these flimsy argu­ments side­step the under­ly­ing sen­ti­ment that dri­ves pol­icy efforts such a Eng­lish Only. Claim­ing patri­o­tism, these efforts eclipse more fun­da­men­tal mem­ber­ships that we should also feel a strong respon­si­bil­ity toward: Amer­i­can multi-cultural and multi-lingual cul­ture, and the human race, wherein every­one has an equal right to speak the lan­guage they were taught to express them­selves in.

  1. Jason C |

    Excel­lent blog, i feel the push­ing the Eng­lish offi­cial lan­guage garbage only serves to cre­ate a hos­tile envi­ron­ment for peo­ple who would speak any other lan­guage in out coun­try. Like big­otry needs any more help these days. I think that we should do the exact oppo­site and push for bilin­gual­ism in our class rooms more

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