Down with English-Only laws

Once again, English Only legislation is being introduced in the U.S. Congress, this time by Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Given the substantial number of serious problems faced by America now, this legislation should be viewed as a frivolous waste of time, but its deleterious effects go deeper than that. It denigrates and demeans the hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the U.S., most of whom are struggling to learn English, if for no other reason than that their futures will be much brighter if they do. All of their children learn English, and their grandchildren often don’t even speak the native language of their immigrant parents or grandparents (which is a problem from cultural and national security standpoints).

Let us begin by reviewing some of the provisions of the proposed legislation, which, thankfully, is not expected to pass.

 §162. Preserving and enhancing the role of the official language
Representatives of the Federal Government shall have an affirmative obligation to preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the Federal Government. Such obligation shall include encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn the English language.

Without defining what “encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn the English language,” this provision has no meaning at all. The Federal Government already functions in English and no enhancement is needed. But “encouraging greater opportunities” can only mean establishing learning centers where immigrants can learn English, and providing a greater number of ESL teachers in schools. This would be a welcome and expensive addition to the federal budget, but increased funding for any kind of education is rejected by the very people who support English-only laws, so this provision is dead on arrival and not worth the paper it is written on.

§ 164. Uniform English language rule for naturalization
         (a)    UNIFORM LANGUAGE TESTING STANDARD.—All citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution.

Who could object to learning a bit about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? Certainly not I. It is the principles enshrined in these documents which draw many immigrants to America in the first place. They have heard about equality of opportunity long before they ever tread our shores. But I wonder which parts of the Declaration of Independence would be considered especially important.

The respect paid to immigrants would be welcome. Prevention of immigration is one of the objections to King George’s rule:  “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither…”

The final remonstrance (in a long list) against King George might seem, to the untutored immigrant, to clash with the basic declaration that “all men are created equal”:  He has…endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. Would we then, in fairness, teach our new immigrants about the “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” which the U.S. government practiced against these “merciless Indian Savages” over the hundred and more years after we became independent? Who would fund the learning centers where immigrants were taught the archaic language of the Declaration of Independence, with its outdated vocabulary and punctuation?

Regarding the Constitution, we would be bound to alert new immigrants that some provisions of this document no longer apply, such as: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” Surely we would want to tell the new immigrants that this vile provision which resulted in escaped slaves being returned to their masters to endure legally sanctioned measures such as death was overturned later by the Supreme Court.  Most damaging to the spirit of all men being “created equal” would be the provision which states: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned … according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”  The Constitution tiptoes around the mention of slavery, but in this provision, counts slaves as three-fifths of a person, and does not include Indians at all. It does count indentured servants, who were usually white, as full people. That part, too, was later overturned, ultimately allowing Barack Obama to become president. Who would want three-fifths of a president?

Is this the image of America that we want to paint for new immigrants? Wouldn’t the economic, social, and cultural pressures to learn English lead them to a more accurate picture of modern America, and more facility in navigating such civic duties as voting and holding a job? Our own high school students have only a vague idea of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I wonder how many of them would pass the test given to immigrants.

Linguists almost universally oppose English-Only legislation, joined by many others; for example, the American Psychological Association’s web page contains an article opposing it. The abstract of the article states: “The scientific literature relevant to the arguments for and against the English-only movement is reviewed, to determine whether the Resolution Against English Only before the Board of Directors and the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association (APA) was supportable. Some of the misconceptions advanced by English-only advocates that affect the sociopsychological, educational, testing, and health-service delivery arenas are examined. It is argued that there is no support for English-only initiatives, and that the English-only movement can have negative consequences on psychosocial development, intergroup relations, academic achievement, and psychometric and health-service delivery systems for many American citizens and residents who are not proficient in English. The public interest is best served by affirming a position in opposition to English-only. English-only is socially divisive and poses a threat to the human welfare that psychologists espouse in the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists.”  The full article can be found here.

Services affected by English-Only legislation would include: health, education and social welfare services, job training, translation assistance to crime victims and witnesses in court and administrative proceedings; voting assistance and ballots, drivers’ licensing exams, and AIDS prevention education. The sponsor of the present bill, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, suggests that its passage would alleviate the expense of providing interpreters and translators in hospitals, courts, and schools. Really? Does this mean that a person who does not speak English will not be helped to understand the proceedings in the court where he or she might be convicted of a crime? On the medical side, would a 911 operator or an EMT be allowed to speak in a language other than English? The present legislation specifically requires that entities from the federal government down to the smallest town must comply with federal law, and since local ambulance drivers and telephone operators for 911 are governmental entities, they might well be forbidden to speak anything but English. In the days of segregation, well within living memory, Black people were allowed to die if there was no hospital for Black people handy. That’s how the famous singer Bessie Smith died – she bled to death because the White hospitals wouldn’t take her in.  Are we going to allow grotesque modern situations to refresh that memory?

Passage of an “English Only” ordinance by Florida’s Dade County in 1980, barring public funding of activities that involved the use of languages other than English, resulted in the cancellation of all multicultural events and bilingual services, ranging from directional signs in the public transit system to medical services at the county hospital. The absence of bilingual signage would not bode well for the tourism industry.

Librarians complain that English-only laws inhibit their ability to communicate with many of their clients.

The English-Only proponents are opposed to spending money on multi-lingual ballots, thus affecting the voting rights of immigrants. One Representative who urged the House of Representatives to reject the English-only measure wondered how we could enforce immigration laws if we were forbidden from communicating with the affected immigrants.

Learning English is a long process, especially for people with limited educational experience. They may be working at multiple jobs to support themselves or taking care of young children or other relatives. It could take them years to master the Constitution. A little patience should be in order while they acclimate themselves to a new country.

Some states have declared English their “official language,” but Hawaii has deemed both English and Hawaaian “official.” Will that now have to be overturned?

The English-only forces include a fringe of racists belonging to hate groups, and underlying all such legislation is a smug intolerance, at the very least. America would benefit more fully from initiatives in the other direction. How foolish, for example, that we had a severe shortage of Arabic-speaking citizens when we went to war in Iraq! It is the smug superiority of Americans such as Rep. King which created generations of Americans who do not speak the language of their immigrant parents or grandparents. In today’s interconnected world, we need to encourage multilingualism. It is good for the arts, business, diplomacy, education, and peace. Any efforts to intimidate Americans into speaking only English take us into isolation and dysfunction.

There is a deeper moral principle to be honored though. English as a language is one form of the glue that has always bound us together. This will not change. Relegating the many languages spoken among us to second-class status only causes division and rancor, not the unity which Americans since the Declaration of Independence have striven for. Immigrants come to America to live where the goal is equality of opportunity, and where that is concerned, we have walked the walk. We have had a Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who speaks English with a German accent, and a recent Chief of Staff of our Armed Forces, John Shalikashvili, spoke English with a Polish accent. We revere Lafayette and deTocqueville, who spoke English with a French accent, as American heroes, and the list of artists, writers, film makers, and musicians who took a while to become fluent in English is a very long one. These American giants all took a while to learn English, and they might have had mothers or other relatives who came to live here who never learned English at all. We don’t want to discourage the scientists who will take us to Mars or the musicians who lift our hearts to be discouraged from coming to our country because we don’t value their language. Bring on the bagels (Yiddish), ketchup (Chinese), chipmunks (Algonquin), soufflés (French), and all the rest! Hooray for America!

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