by Carlos Centurion
Making English the official language of the United States has been a political issue for quite some time, but in recent years, due to a surge in immigration that has sparked nationalistic sentiments; the quest to nationally formalize the language has taken an increasing powerful form. Proponents of the measure claim that English is an imperative symbol of national unity and that having more than one language utilized at the state and federal levels is a direct threat to the homogeneity of the country. They propose eliminating bilingual voting ballots and bilingual education, among other things. They sustain that immigrants from all groups must adhere to mainstream “American” values, integrate, and absorb this culture without providing their own social or linguistic contributions.
Opponents of making English the official national language of the United States contend that this type of measures are racist and xenophobic and are particularly directed at the increasing (and threatening in terms of numbers) Hispanic population. Some of these scholars affirm that eliminating bilingual education would be a direct attack on minorities and that making English official will only bring problems and not many benefits to those seeking the measure. They furthermore allege that a bilingual society does not pose a threat to national unity, and that Hispanics are indeed learning English and assimilating to “American” mainstream culture at comparable rates to other immigrant groups.
The present study will examine both sides of the issue and mutually analyze the validity of arguments in favor and against making English the official language of the nation. It will additionally discuss if such measure has any chance of ever been practically implemented by the federal government and the prejudicial and or beneficial effects that such a measure would have for “mainstream Americans” and minority groups. The author believes that proposals such as the ones discussed in this investigation are intrinsically prejudiced and are strictly directed at minorities that persist on having their own cultural and linguistic identities and object integrating to the mainstream “American” society and adopting its values. The author furthermore considers that forcing immigrants into adopting these values and abandon their national identities and languages is immoral and discriminative, and will result in increased national disunity and more social, cultural, and racial predicaments than benefits to the United States.
One out of three “Americans” believe that English is the national language of the United States, this is not the case; in fact this nation has no official language. English is nevertheless the de facto language of the country since ninety seven percent of the population claim to be able to speak it at a moderate to expert level. Unlike many other nations, the constitution of the US does not mention this subject, mainly because the founders were not concerned with linguistic matters; since a vast majority of them were Anglo-Saxons, they did not feel that it was important to officially declare that their language needed to be the one of the nation. “[T]o these English-speakers, language legislation would have seemed a trivial concern” (Magner, 406).
Throughout the history of the United States, declaring English the official language and prohibiting the use of other competing tongues has not been a dilemma because past immigrants have adapted quickly to “American” values and culture and have absorbed and utilized the de facto language of the land without putting a fight. Nevertheless, in recent decades, a major increase in Mexican and Latin American immigration has sparked grave controversy and calls for declaring English the sole language of the nation, since according to the proponents of these measures, these groups are not like previous immigrants; they refuse to speak English and want to impose their values over “American” or Anglo-Saxon principles and ideals. Moreover, statistics have shown that in the near future Hispanics as a group will continue to increase in size at a disproportionate level; this adds to the fears many people possess of having a new ethnic majority in this country. Lastly, these new immigrant groups are provided with a number of benefits, such a bilingual education, bilingual voting ballots, and many other bilingual services that infuriate people who fear the power that such a vast amount of people could have on “American” values and culture. As a result of many of these issues, the English as the official language movement was born in the nineteen eighties in order to try to stop the influence of these immigrants and force them to use English and be part of “American” mainstream society.
The utilization of multilingual voting ballots throughout the United States is one of the key issues that the English as the national language movement is trying to proscribe. The organization claims that providing this service vastly harms national unity. “There have been numerous complaints about the use of bilingual ballots both for the complications they introduced into the electoral process, but more importantly […] they encourage ethnic divisions” (Magner, 410). Moreover, proponents of English as the official language argue that these machines that provide voting ballots in dissimilar languages are very costly and they are paid with taxpayer funds. Lastly, they insist that a key requirement for everyone that becomes a citizen of the United States must be that they are proficient in English. If this was the case, the need for these machines would not exist.
A second crucial matter advanced by the proponents of English as the official language of the United States is the elimination of bilingual education mainly because “[t]he presence of non-English speakers on our streets and in our classrooms tends to generate friction and resentment” (Heller, 12). Once more in the name of national unity, they proclaim that education should be solely in English and that the only time that another language should be used is when this is utilized to teach English to recent immigrants. Furthermore they insist in that teaching in the students’ native language makes it difficult for them to learn English and makes them dependent on their original tongue; isolating them further from other native students. “[The current system] dragoons children into bilingual programs that reinforce the students’ dependency on their native language and then makes escape impossible” (Magner, 410). By prohibiting bilingual education, recent immigrant children and teenagers would not be able to learn diverse subjects in their native tongues and would be forced to attend regular classes without any linguistic assistance. “Students would not understand instructions in subjects like science or math until they became proficient in English” (Califa, 309).
Lastly, a third vital concern advanced by advocates of English as the US’ formal language involves employment. They believe that a key occupational requirement should be proficiency in English and that people should be denied of the right to work if they do not possess this skill. They furthermore insist that English should be the only language spoken in the workplace and that people should be disciplined and even terminated for speaking their native tongue in their place of work. They seek to reverse a guideline adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1987 which states that “a rule requiring employees to speak only English in the workplace was a burdensome condition of employment” (Califa, 310). A reversal of this law would negatively affect millions of workers, especially Hispanic, that are not proficient in English or that utilize their native tongue as a medium of communication when they are working.
The goals and objectives of the English as the official language of the United States’ movement are straightforward. Our analysis now focuses on the reasons underlying these desires and the rationale behind attaining the aforementioned policy changes. National unity and patriotism are often cited by the members of the movement in question as the main reasons why they seek to establish English as the official language and diminish the impact of other tongues, principally Spanish. Keeping the United States safe from other cultural and societal influences is extremely significant to the movement, especially during an epoch where Hispanic immigration is very high and “it is believed that a reconquista or re-conquest of the American Southwest, a territory once belonging to Mexico, is well underway [and cannot be stopped] unless Mexicans assimilate the values, beliefs, and language of the United States” (Gershon, 1523). To the members of this movement, being an American patriot signifies waging a war against this new menace to US values and the way of life of the people of this country.
To most Anglo-Saxons and members of English as the official language of the United States movement, being patriotic is deeply attached to recognized “American” values and especially the English language. Therefore patriotism is one of the main reasons why they support the elimination of competing languages and cultures that are not aligned to the traditional ideals that they seek to defend. The highest threat to this way of life is obviously Spanish and the solid Hispanic culture; because of this, “proponents of the English-Only movement typically single out Spanish-speaking Latinos as the main impetus for their activities” (Gershon, 1524). They generally assert that this group of immigrant is the most problematic because they do not want to integrate to the regular “American” culture and prefer to promote their own way of life and language. Extensive research has discovered that Anglo-Saxons who identify themselves as being patriotic, generally favor English only policies because they see this language as a core value of the United States that unifies the nation. “As such, high levels of patriotism are likely to coincide with a desire to preserve and protect American culture, identity, and community” (Gershon, 1527). In the minds of these “patriots” the United States is immerse in a cultural war against a competing set of values and way of life that requires them to focus all of their attention and efforts into combating this threat. Research has suggested that most Latinos are also patriotic, but to them patriotism generally does not have the same meaning. They do not see English as a key part of being patriotic and believe that a mixture of identities and ways of life is more reflective of “American” values, culture, and civilization than a homogenous society that rejects external influences. It is because of these facts that a vast majority of members of the English as the official language of the United States movement are Anglo-Saxons that hold and support the aforementioned ideals and beliefs.
The English as the official national language movement has not achieved a federal law as of yet but they are continually trying to accomplish this objective. “[Law makers in Congress] have proposed in both houses joint resolutions that would amend the Constitution, making English our official language” (International Journal of, 1). The movement’s success in many States has proven that numerous people agree with them and are willing to support their proposals in the voting booth. According to US English, to date, thirty states have adopted English as the official language statutes (US English website). The issue is being pushed in other states and even though a federal law does not seem likely, due to the many personal freedom violations that are attached to the propositions, the movement’s leaders feel that the battle will be won state by state. The American public at large seems to agree with many of the proposals presented by the movement. “On public opinion surveys, large majorities consistently support the idea of making English the official language and providing government services, such as election materials, only in English” (Schilddkraut, 446). These state laws have not been rebutted by courts or challenged whatsoever. As a result of these legislative victories, the opponents of the English only movement intensively try to fight these ideas, since although they have not become federal law, they are slowly making the country “officially English” one state after another.
The English only movement has many detractors who consider that the ideals advanced by the group are discriminatory and racists in practice and theory. They furthermore consider that their fears are unfounded and that Hispanics do not present a menace to traditional “American” values as supporters of the group proclaim. Moreover, opponents of the organization in question consider that advancing the policy changes proposed by English only will deeply harm immigrants in the United States and will not bring positive outcomes for anyone. Instead of creating national unity, detractors assert, implementing these policies will create deep racial, societal, and cultural divisions between recent immigrants and other groups. In their minds, the US is similarly involved in an intense cultural war and they should concentrate their efforts in defending the right of immigrants to conserve their traditions and to not be forced to speak a language and follow a culture that they do not want to adhere to.
The idea that Hispanics do not want to speak English and do not want to integrate to mainstream “American” society is challenged by opponents of the English only movement. “Hispanics are acquiring English-language proficiency at the same rate as other immigrants, a fact which undermines the movement’s basic assumption to the contrary” (Califa, 295). It seems on the surface that the group wants to preserve their language and customs at all costs but if examined deeply, Hispanics are indeed assimilating “American” values at comparable rates to other immigrant groups. In many instances it does not look this way because Hispanic immigration is constant and the newcomers portrait their own culture and traditions as expected; but the ones that have been in the United States for over one generation adapt to the US’ way of life rapidly, just like any other group. “The McCarthy and Valdez Study showed that the classic three-generation model of language acquisition is present for Hispanics” (Califa, 314). This signifies that a majority of Hispanics prefer English and mainstream US values by the third generation. As a result, detractors of making English the official language of the United States sustain that Hispanics and specifically the Spanish language are not a threat to the American way of life, its culture, and mostly Anglo-Saxon traditions and that putting these laws into practice would not benefit anyone. “For most members of the majority language group in the United States the tangible personal costs and benefits of bilingual government or ‘official English’ are neither clear nor substantial” (Citrin, 1).
Critics of English only’s prepositions furthermore declare that eliminating bilingual voting ballots and education could be detrimental to many Hispanics and a direct attack against them as an ethnicity and culture. They claim that bilingual ballots are utilized by citizens that are proficient in English but prefer to obtain their information in their original language. Not providing them with the information they want to obtain in their tongue could keep many voters from actually participating in democracy. “Hispanics are learning English despite the prevalence of bilingual ballots. English-Only ballots would only serve to disenfranchise Hispanics-which may be the intended effect” (Califa, 317). Eliminating bilingual education is controversial because it has been demonstrated that it will be significantly harder for recent students to adapt to their new classrooms if their language is not utilized to assist them in this early adaptation. Furthermore, there is no scientific proof sustaining that students who are instructed in their native language are more inclined not to learn English and isolate themselves from the rest of the students. “Within one to three years, the majority of students are in ‘regular’ classes conducted entirely in English. […] The shift from Spanish to English is inexorable; bilingual programs do not impede the acquisition of English” (Califa, 319). Based on these facts, it seems that the English as the official language movement is trying to fix a problem that does not exist: “English is not under attack, it is overwhelmingly the language of our government; immigrants want to learn English; and instead of promoting unnecessary divisive policies, we ought to simply help immigrants to learn English” (Marshall, 7).
Lastly, antagonists of the movement in question assert that English only proposals are racist and xenophobic, since they target an ethnic group because of its language and customs. They furthermore declare that even though they deny it, the organization targets Hispanics and its main concern is eliminating their power and influence in “American” society. “The English-Only movement is actually an expression of the underlying insecurity about and prejudice towards Hispanics” (Califa, 294). A raise in legal and illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America has sparked this nationalism, opponents argue, in part because these new immigrant tend to perform jobs at lower wages, therefore “taking” employment away from “real Americans”. It has been proven that sentiments against Hispanics and their linguistic influences are more prevalent in people who are in the lower strata of the socioeconomic scale. To their opponents, “[t]he English-Only movement is fueled by cultural insecurity and prejudice against Hispanics. […] They are frightened by Hispanic immigration and the possibility that Anglos will lose political dominance” (Califa, 347). Claims of racism and xenophobia appear to be the toughest criticism against the English as the official language of the United States movement.
The English only movement’s proposals appear to be xenophobic and prejudiced in nature and practice, especially against Hispanics. Forcing people to adopt a new culture and forbidding them from using their language and customs goes against freedom of speech and essentially everything that the United States stands for. Prohibiting bilingual voting booths is not consistent with basic voting rights and seeks to disenfranchise a group of people based on their ethnicity and culture. Trying to censure bilingual education will be detrimental to recent immigrants who seek to adapt to their new country. They will be forced to study numerous subjects in an unfamiliar tongue; this will eventually contribute to academic deficit and social isolation. Lastly, waging a war against Hispanics, just because they are coming to the United States in vast numbers and their culture and language are considered a threat by the racial majority is racialist, deplorable, and iniquitous. In the author’s belief, it seems that the English only movement is trying to fix a problem that does not exist in the first place: Hispanics are not trying to impose their culture in the United States, to the contrary, after a couple of generations they are factually abandoning their original traditions and embracing customary “American” values, including the English language. The leaders of these movements comprehend this, but notwithstanding choose to expand their cause and cleverly prey on Anglo-Saxons’ “patriotism” in order to advance an unrelated racist agenda that seeks to debilitate Hispanic influence and power and pretends to force them to succumb to the racial majority in cultural, social, and linguistic terms. For all of the abovementioned reasons the author believes that these movements are an embarrassment to the United States and make a mockery of the liberty and self-determination that this exceptional nation is supposed to signify.
English only proposals are slowly taking the country by storm, one state after the other. The laws advanced by the movement prohibit bilingual education, bilingual voting rights, and many other bilingual services that are vital to recent immigrants. These propositions specifically target Hispanics, for they are the largest non-Anglo group in the United States and their culture, language, and traditions are categorized as a menace to “American” values by the influential racial majority. The movements’ antagonists argue that laws prohibiting people from exercising their culture and language are chauvinistic in nature and should not be allowed in a country that promotes individual freedom. The author sides with these detractors and proclaims that the propositions advanced by these organizations that are trying to establish English as the official language of the United States are deplorable since they prove to be prejudiced against immigrants, especially Hispanics. Veiled beneath the linguistic façade, an inequitable political and societal agenda exists that seeks to limit the impact and power of the Hispanic culture and the Spanish language in order to maintain the preponderant and arrogant Anglo-Saxon societal status quo that has dominated the United States for nearly two hundred and thirty nine years.