In a recent Republican Presidential debate, held at the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann responded to a question regarding border reform. “I will enforce English as the official language of the United States government,” the presidential hopeful vowed (Full Transcript). Her controversial political promise was met with a loud applause from the largely Southwestern audience who is at the heart of the illegal immigration debate. As I watched this unfold in my dorm room, I did not stand and cheer. First, that would have been a very uncomfortable action for my roommate to witness, but more importantly, I do not side with Rep. Bachmann. I am not a proponent of an English-only amendment to any constitution, federal or otherwise. I believe its basic ideas are rooted in xenophobia and racism that have been present since America’s beginnings.
The current English-only movement stems back to its past history caused by a nativist and racist sentiment that has plagued the United States beginning in the eighteenth century with the arrival of German immigrants in Pennsylvania. The British colonists painted the Germans as lazy, illiterate, and exclusionary toward Pennsylvanians. Some even wrongly blamed the immigrants for harsh winters. More than a century later, as the United States involved itself in World War I, German was banned in many states across the country to promote patriotism. In 1919, Nebraska passed English-only legislation that took four years to be overturned by the federal Supreme Court, however the damage had already been done. The percentage of high school students that enrolled in a German class after 1923 had dropped significantly from its pre-legislation percentage (Baron).
The American jingoism that followed World War I fueled many unsuccessful attempts to federally legislate English as the official language of the United States. More recently, an English-only Constitutional amendment has been proposed to Congress each year from 1981 to 2006 (Baron). Because these amendments have consistently failed, many states have taken the controversial issue into their own hands. Currently, thirty-one states hold English as their official language, with Oklahoma adopting the language in 2010 (U.S. English). These states have forgotten that their movement is connected to historical English-only movements that were designed to alienate those who were different and thought to be refusing assimilation (Baron).
The assimilation argument is often used to describe the current influx of Hispanic immigrants to the United States. English-only advocates claim that Hispanics are geared toward separating themselves from American culture rather than assimilate. Research has shown, however, that all immigrant groups in the United States “demonstrate a change in their expressed language preference from the home language to English” (Padilla 14). Studies have also shown, that Hispanics are learning English as their second language at the same rate of 20th Century immigrants from European countries like Germany, Italy, Russia, and Poland (Baron).
Founded in 1983, U.S. English Inc. is the oldest action group leading the charge for English as the country’s official language. The group asserts that a “life without English proficiency of the United States is a life of low-skilled, low-paying jobs” (U.S. English). While this claim may be true, it erroneously suggests that these immigrants will be trapped in a state of ignorance or that they are too simple to ever learn the English language. U.S. English then uses studies from Census data that “show that an immigrant’s income rises about thirty percent as a result of learning English.” This claim may very well be true; however, the group is masking its research under the guise of helping immigrants. U.S. English wants the reader to believe the immigrants should not be trusted to learn English on their own, and that the government should impose English upon them.
U.S. English Inc. also believes an English-only legislation would “promote unity.” The company accuses the government of sending immigrants a message that “it is not necessary to learn English because the government will accommodate them” (U.S. English). The group fails to clarify their meaning of “unity.” It appears as if U.S. English believes immigrants are obliged to learn English in order to obtain the mythical and indefinable status of being “real Americans.”
U.S. English also points to a Labor Department study that states that immigrants take a longer time to learn English while receiving “native language support” (U.S. English). Naturally the sink or swim attitude of education forces one to learn at a much faster rate, but it is the incorrect attitude. According to the American Psychological Association, “positive self and ethnic identification occurs when children are allowed to access both their heritage language and English” (Padilla 14). The fear of many opponents of English-only legislation, including immigrants themselves, is that their ethnic heritage will dissolve once English is forced upon them at a much faster rate.
Another proponent for English-only legislation, Pro English, gives even less credible reasons for action to be taken. The organization claims that English should be the official language so that the government can act “officially.” From the logic the group sets forth, the United States should not be and is not considered a world superpower since it has organized itself unofficially as a group of unconnected states with individual needs, much like the United States before the Constitution. The group’s other reason for official English is to solidify the expectation that immigrants must learn English in order to assimilate. Pro English has failed to realize, though, that the assimilation argument is an invalid one due to immigrants’ willingness to learn English quickly (English Only).
Being an opponent of English-only laws does not mean that I believe immigrants should not have to learn English. Learning English is a necessary part of American life, but it should not be met with the removal of one’s heritage, which is what English-only legislation would essentially lead to (Padilla 14). Americans who are quick to support legislation for English as the country’s official language are unable to empathize with the less practical but deeper issue at hand—the identity of the immigrant. For the immigrant, language has shifted from the appropriate method to communicate. One’s language has become a symbol of his or her unity with one’s community. In a country that fervently believes that all men are created equal, Americans are now faced with the question: “Are all men created equal, or are all Americans created equal?”
Baron, Dennis. “English in a Multicultural America.” Social Policy 21.4 (1991): 5-14. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 26 Oct. 2011.
“English Only vs. Official English.” proenglish.org. ProEnglish, n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2011.
“Full Transcript CNN Western Republican Presidential Debate.” CNN.com. CNN, 18 Oct. 2011. Web. 26 Oct. 2011.
Padilla, Amado. “The English-Only Movement: Myths, Reality, and Implications for Psychology American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association, n.d. Web.26 Oct. 2011.
U.S. English. U.S. English Inc, 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2011.