Should the U.S. make English its official language? | The Tylt
Should the U.S. make English its official language?
In a 2014 piece, The Washington Post explained the difference between English-only laws and English-official laws.
First, English-official laws are not the same as English-only laws. The former stipulate that the English language be a language of official matters, but English need not be used to the exclusion of other languages. In contrast, the latter mandate the exclusive use of the English language; the use of any other language in public settings can be punished. A few (historical) examples are illustrative – compare, for instance, Louisiana to Nebraska. In 1807 Louisiana legislated English and French as official languages of the state. In contrast, Nebraska adopted English-only legislation in 1920 (in response to anti-German sentiment in the wake of World War I). The teaching of German – and any other language aside from English – was banned from the classrooms. The distinction between these types of legislation is quite important for speakers of non-English languages. Clearly, sometimes the adoption of English-official language laws draws upon anti-immigrant sentiment. But, not all such legislation has adverse consequences for immigrants.
Even though English-only laws are largely symbolic and frequently hold little actual legal weight, many believe they create an unnecessary and dangerous split between native- and non-native English speakers.
Duke University linguistics professor Dominika Baran explained to Pacific Standard Magazine that part of the reason English was not written into the U.S. Constitution as the official language was because the founders recognized the importance of allowing people to speak their native languages freely.
That is a complex issue, and it begins with this myth of English as America's national language. The truth is that America's Founding Fathers did not wish to establish an official language, and were happy to distribute documents like the Declaration of Independence in non-English languages (which at that time meant primarily French and German) to speakers of those languages, in order to win their support for the revolutionary cause.
It was only at the turn of the 20th century that English started being touted as the national language, one that represents American unity. This went hand in hand with nationalist ideologies born in Europe, [of] one language as corresponding to one nation and one people.
Of course, the reality is very different across the world, Europe included. But erasing this reality of multilingualism allows for the construction of a division—of "us" versus "them."
Michigan became the most recent state to move forward with English as the official language legislation in February 2018. The Detroit News reported the Michigan House of Representatives proposed a bill to make English the state's official language, which passed largely along party lines.
Supporters said the bill would largely “codify” existing practice and celebrate a shared language, but critics bemoaned it as a divisive change that could marginalize immigrants and other residents who are not proficient in English.
Sponsoring Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, downplayed the criticism, noting that 32 other states have enacted similar laws, including what he sarcastically called the “vast right-wing jurisdictions of Massachusetts and California.”
The bill “acknowledges a fundamental truth” that English already is the official language in Michigan, Barrett said. “I agree we’re a very diverse state, but don’t you think that diversity with no shared values, experiences or commonality drives us deeper and deeper into our own corners and our silos?”
...“We’re not stepping on toes. We’re not preventing rights. We’re not turning people away,” said Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, who co-sponsored the bill. “We are simply saying English is our common language here in Michigan, and that’s what we’re reflecting in state law.”
Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their own languages. And many Japanese schools started by immigrants in Hawaii were forced to shut down during World War II.
"The sad thing about debates about language is that they're rarely about language itself, but the people who happen to speak those languages," said Wright.
..."There are enough representatives on both sides of the aisle that recognize that it's kind of futile," said Wright. "Number one, English is not under threat in the United States. And number two, it's divisive."
In a 2014 piece from the conservative Washington Times, writer Brandon Brice argued making English the official language would unite, not divide the nation.
Making English the official language would encourage new migrants to learn the language of the country they have adopted as theirs. The end goal is to unite the American people, while improving the lives of immigrants and native-born inhabitants.
There would be savings; official English would save billions in federal spending. The direct cost of translators and bilingual education alone are billions, and many of these costs are born by local governments. In Los Angeles in 2002, $15 million, or 15 percent of the election budget, was devoted to printing ballots in seven languages and hiring bilingual poll workers. Los Angeles county hires over 400 full-time court interpreters at a cost of $265 per day. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed into law Executive Order 13166, which forces health care providers who accept Medicare and Medicaid payments to hire interpreters for any patient who requires one, at the providers’ own expense.
Samantha Yenger Cremean disagreed in a piece for The Establishment. Cremean believes the reason many immigrants don't learn English is not that they choose not to, it's because of a lack of opportunity. Therefore, making English the official language without offering further opportunities for non-native speakers to learn the language would have huge negative effects on their day-to-day lives.
In fact, the real problem is not lack of motivation, but lack of federal funding for ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. According to The Migration Policy Institute, such classes are in high demand but, thanks to funding cuts, suffer long wait times resulting in unmet need. The incentive to learn English is already there — what’s missing is the means.
If the “Official English” movement were truly interested in improving immigrants’ lives and fostering national unity they would address this need, whether through support for increased federal funding or by providing free ESL classes and tutoring. But their websites and social media feeds offer no information about ESL class wait lists or suggestions on what to do about the problem.
...The argument that “Official English,” through the elimination of government-mandated translation services, would benefit the economy is also suspect. In fact, opponents argue, it would do more harm than good. English-only tax forms would result in lost tax revenue, monolingualism would decrease the country’s competitiveness in the global marketplace, and lack of translation assistance would grow an underclass of people who can’t access basic government services.
Even if “Official English” were financially beneficial, there are other concerns as well, including but not limited to free speech, public health, psychological well-being, marginalization of bilingual students, and — especially prescient now — immigrants’ interactions with law enforcement in general, and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in particular.