The racism of “English only”

May 19, 2011

Amy Smith looks at the message Barack Obama sent with a recent speech.

RECENTLY, PRESIDENT Obama gave a speech calling for a renewed focus on the issue of immigration and made the argument that undocumented immigrants should be " learn English" before being allowed to claim full citizenship.

Explaining that this is one part of "what being an American means," Obama has aligned himself with the ideologies that guide the ultra-conservative, xenophobic "English only" movement in the United States.

While English-only fanatics have so far failed to pass any legislation designating English as the official language, this ideology around language--one that has been present in the United States since the nation's founding--has succeeded in creating an environment where immigrants' rights to their native language are rarely recognized and constantly under attack.

Recent legislation in Arizona that targeted teachers with "accented speech" is only one of the most recent incarnations of a long history of language-based discrimination in the United States.

Even though the United States designates no official language, English has long been accepted as such. On the whole, English is enforced as our "official" language simply by the fact that official business in this country is carried out in English.

In some instances, though, state and local governments have chosen to go a step further; for example, many states now or in the past have passed legislation mandating that the sole language of instruction in public schools be English.

Bernard Spolsky explains in his book Language Policy that, historically, English-only policies (explicit or implicit) in the United States have been used in two key ways: as a weapon against conquered peoples, such as Spanish speakers in Puerto Rico and California, Native Americans, and Hawaiians; and as a way to guard against immigrant groups, such as Germans in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

During and following the First World War, German speakers in several states came under attack when German music was banned, German theaters were closed, and German books were removed from libraries--all in the name of war-inspired nationalism.

AS HISTORY illustrates, the enforcement of the English language always has and always will go hand in hand with imperialism and xenophobia.

The right to speak one's own native language is, like any other right, one that had to be fought for and won. As Spanish speakers became a more sizeable population in the United States, they were able to win minor concessions on the issue. One example of this is the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, a piece of legislation closely linked to the Civil Rights Act and the struggles of the civil rights movement.

This law provided federal funding for public schools to address the needs of children with limited English-speaking abilities. Most importantly, this law allowed for instruction in the child's native language. While the Bilingual Education Act was not perfect--the ultimate goal was still only to prepare children for English-medium instruction--the fact that it also emphasized retention of students' native languages was a huge victory for minority-language speakers.

But as is the case with workers' and minority rights, these linguistic rights are being scaled back more and more. Congress declined to renew funding for the Bilingual Education Act in 2002 when it expired and, instead, funneled that money into Bush's No Child Left Behind.

While funding was set aside for English as a Second Language programs, there were no more provisions about instruction in a child's native language, and the funding was taken away from professional development programs that trained teachers to work with non-English speaking students.

This ensured that children learning English were given no specialized education by people who were trained to teach them English, setting them up to fail when they couldn't receive any instruction in a language that they actually spoke.

The most recent and most blatant attack on minority-language speakers is the xenophobic law put forth in Arizona last year stating that no one with "accented" speech should be allowed to teach children who are still learning English.

The Linguistic Society of America and the Linguistics Department of the University of Arizona has decried this legislation, pointing out that, first of all, no speech is "unaccented" and, more importantly, that Spanish-speaking children trying to learn English would have better chances of doing so if their teacher shared their native accent and had the same cultural background.

Unfortunately, however, language policy in the United States has never actually been about protecting rights or ensuring that our children learn. Instead, these policies allow our leaders to perpetuate racist, anti-immigrant ideologies by focusing solely on language as opposed to skin color.

But the teachers in Arizona who were fired because of "accented speech," the immigrants who were deported because they couldn't understand their English-only immigration documents, and the non-English speaking people who are generally excluded from participation in our society aren't fooled.

ONE OF the ways that policy-makers get away with this is by claiming that forcing immigrants to learn English is "for their own good."

It's an unfortunate truth that an immigrant probably will have a better life in the United States if they can speak English--and the more they sound like a native speaker, the better. A 1999 study published in The Journal of Language and Social Psychology demonstrates that speakers of non-standard English (such as speakers of African American English or Chicano English) often face housing discrimination based solely on telephone conversations--that is, based solely on their use of the English language. Surely the same findings would hold in other situations, such as employment discrimination.

This allows our politicians to hide behind the argument that forcing immigrants to learn English is the only way to help them succeed. But forcing people to learn English is not a solution to language-based discrimination.

Furthermore, as the death of the Bilingual Education Act shows, our leaders aren't concerned with actually helping people to learn English after their declarations that English is the only acceptable language. It should be fairly obvious that what hurts immigrants even more than not speaking English is not speaking English in a country that is continually pushing English-only norms.

Instead of demanding English-language requirements, what we should demand is that the government accommodate speakers of all languages. As the wealthiest nation in the world, our government surely has the funds and resources available to make America accessible to non-English speakers.

All public services and documents--especially immigration documents--should be offered in multiple languages. Spanish speakers--documented or undocumented--should be allowed to fill out forms, to vote, to be educated and to generally participate in our society using their native language.

We should, of course, argue that undocumented immigrants be granted immediate amnesty--but as long as we live in a system where undocumented immigrants are arrested just for being "foreigners," we should demand that all documents that they be given and all court proceedings that they are forced to participate in are in their native language.

And, of course, opportunities to learn English should be available for those who wish to utilize them: opportunities for anyone to learn whatever language they wish should be available to them, because education should be free and open to all.

It's not always clear to political activists that they should oppose restrictive language policies. It's sometimes easy to get swept up in the idea that these policies only affect languages and not people.

But we need to start asking questions about what happens to the speakers of those languages. The devaluation of a language is just as bad as the devaluation of a race of people.

In jumping on board with the English-only ideology, Obama has exposed his immigration policies for what they really are--racist and xenophobic. We need to fight back against the English-only ideologies that exclude immigrants from our country, and we need to fight for the linguistic rights of everyone.
Amy Smith, from the Internet

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