Pro English Only Movement Essays

Posted on by Vom

By Jake Grovum

A growing language divide has opened up across the country, as a sharp increase in the number of Americans who speak English as a second language—or don’t speak it at all—is driving cities and states to respond, often in radically different ways.

In some places, policymakers are enacting or strengthening English-as-official-language laws, barring the translation of certain government documents into any other language. Other places are becoming de facto multilingual societies, with laws and procedures designed to make government more accessible to immigrants who don’t speak English. The result is a patchwork of policies that vary greatly from state to state, or even within states.

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To date, 31 states and many counties and localities have adopted English as their official languages. Oklahoma became the most recent state to do so in 2010, and many cities or counties have as well, such as Carroll County, Maryland in 2013. Just this year, five states — Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin — saw pushes to enact official-English laws, although none passed.

But even where official-English laws are on the books, enforcement varies. In some cases, the measures are being ignored as the population of non-English speakers rises rapidly.

“This growing linguistic diversity, that is just simply a reality,” said Patricia Gándara, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of a forthcoming book, “The Bilingual Advantage”.

“The reality is that things are changing,” she added. “And this nation is becoming a very multi-language nation.”

A Necessity or a Crutch?

The U.S. is one of the few countries without a national official language, and the debate over official-English laws has been around almost as long as the country itself.  The Obama administration opposes making English the country’s official language, which has stymied movement at the national level since he took office in 2009.

The lack of a federal policy hasn’t stopped cities and states from acting. Some local and state measures have roots going back more than a century, with many tied to previous waves of immigration or historical events. In 1919, for example, Nebraska outlawed the teaching of any modern language other than English to any child who hadn’t yet passed the eighth grade. That law, which reflected the anti-German prejudices of the World War I era, was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Over the years, circumstances have changed, but many of the arguments have not. Those backing the laws say they preserve cultural cohesion and offer immigrants economic mobility, because learning English is the best way for new immigrants to succeed.

“It’s not about language restriction,” said Karin Davenport of U.S. English, a group that advocates English instruction for immigrants and backs making it the official language. “It’s about a general principle that the role of the government is to teach English, not to be perpetual translator.”

By not requiring English proficiency, Davenport added, “you’re still providing them with that crutch that’s allowing them to remain linguistically isolated.”

Yet demographics and the changing linguistic makeup of America have challenged such beliefs. Nationwide, 20.8 percent of residents, or nearly 61 million people, speak a language other than English at home, the U.S. Census Bureau reported last year. In 2000, that number was just 17.9 percent.

In some cases, population trends have prompted government officials to make changes, regardless of what the law says. California law, for example, designates English as the state’s official language and requires legislators and state officials “to take all steps necessary to ensure that the role of English as the common language of the state is preserved and enhanced.” But the law is largely seen as symbolic, and it doesn’t specifically bar the state from translating documents into other languages. Today, the state offers many documents in languages other than English, including an entire Spanish-language version of the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles website. As UCLA’s Gándara said of the law, “it’s completely irrelevant.”

“The reality is it’s a highly linguistically diverse region,” she added. “If you don't speak Spanish or one of the Asian languages you’re kind of left out of the mainstream.”

Census data supports that line of thinking. Forty-four percent of Californians reported speaking a language other than English at home. In West Virginia, the figure was 2 percent.

That could explain why California has found itself on the leading edge of a debate this year over legislation requiring the translation of patient instructions on prescription bottles. Federal guidelines require pharmacies that receive federal funding to offer some translation services, and some private pharmacies have followed suit to attract more customers.

California would be the second state — after New York — to enact a law requiring the translations on all prescription bottles. Some worry about inaccurate translations or errors in communicating across languages, but those who support the idea see it as a matter of safety and necessity.

“Obviously the number of limited-English-proficient individuals in the United States continues to grow,” said Evan Weibel of Language Scientific, Inc., a company that offers pharmacies translation services. “The need for services like this is something that’s not going to go away.”

Another example occurred this year in Massachusetts, where a concentration of non-native-English speakers in Boston prompted the legislature to allow the city to offer ballots in some precincts in Chinese and Vietnamese. The state has an official-English law on the books, and although the federal Voting Rights Act requires multilingual ballots in some parts of the country, it didn’t there.

The sponsor of the measure, Democratic state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, represents Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood. He said offering multilingual ballots will be particularly important this fall, since voters will be asked a complicated referendum question on casino gambling.

Popular and Lasting

Despite the country’s changing demographics, official-English laws have proven popular and lasting, not just in so-called “red” states, but also in the more liberal “blue” ones. Democratic-dominated Illinois, for example, adopted an official-English law in the 1960s.

Supporters continue to push states and cities to adopt such measures, and to convince those that have such laws but don’t enforce them to take them more seriously.

In Arizona, an official-English group, ProEnglish, is supporting a community college student who was suspended when she complained that members of her class were speaking Spanish during group work. The group’s executive director, Robert Vandervoort, said the state’s English law should have blocked the suspension, and that the case shows why such laws matter.

Pennsylvania is another state that considered the issue this year. Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe sponsored an official-English measure, although similar ones have failed repeatedly in the past. The legislature will reconvene hearings on Metcalfe’s proposal this fall.

“We can save tax dollars at the same time as promoting the unifying effect of English as the official language of the state,” Metcalfe said. “It gives (immigrants) greater earning power, they assimilate into the culture.”

But Pennsylvania also illustrates the competing trends. Just 200 miles west of Harrisburg, city officials and private groups in Pittsburgh are working to lure immigrants to their city, in part to offset the devastating flight of residents and industry that’s been ongoing there for decades.

Melanie Harrington, president and CEO of the coalition Vibrant Pittsburgh, said the group has gone to great lengths to make the city more welcoming to immigrants. To achieve that goal, it has collaborated with Latino Chamber of Commerce groups, Bhutanese community centers, and even visiting salsa festivals. Vibrant Pittsburgh also has helped a recent wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia to navigate the city’s health care system, courts, and schools.

What’s notable, though, is how much has gotten done absent official policy changes at the state or local level. In its place, Harrington said, has been “community action.”

“Demand generates or causes community organizations, markets, to adjust, and sometimes law and policy catches up to that,” she said. “It’s coming slowly. I think what we have here in Pittsburgh is an opportunity.”

But the forces pushing for accommodation amid increasing diversity could spur a backlash. Amy H. Liu and Anand Edward Sokhey, two political science professors who wrote a paper analyzing state language laws, said interest in such measures spikes when immigration increases or the immigration issue rises to the top of the national agenda, as it has recently.

“I don't think it’s a coincidence that these things are packaged,” said Sokhey, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, referring to a focus on immigration and official-English laws. “You’re probably going to see more of these linguistic battles, if you will, playing out.”

But Liu, a professor at the University of Texas, said increasing immigration also could drive the issue in different ways: More Spanish speakers, for example, might change the terms of the debate entirely.

“Texas is not English-official, and it is de facto bilingual,” Liu said, offering one example.

“You’re going to see an increase in English-official laws.”

“Or,” she added, “you’re going to see a spike in Spanish-official laws.”

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Debate: English as US official language

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Background and context

The United States of America, contrary to a large majority of all countries (92%), does not not have any official language at the federal level. English is, therefore, the official language only in a de facto sense, not de iure.
Official English laws make it necessary for governments to provide information and services in English only, and does not protect the "right" of non-English speakers to receive govt information and services in another language. Is it time for the U.S. to make English its national language, or is this needless? The debate became increasingly heated in 2010 due to the debates surrounding Arizona's illegal immigration laws, and to a generally larger and increasing percentage of illegal immigrants present in different communities who are not able to speak English. Also, thirty US states had adopted Official English laws as of 2010, so a large part of the debate is whether other US states should adopt English as their official language as well. Some of the questions surrounding the debate include: would it aid immigrants in the assimilation process and make it more likely for them to succeed? Can other languages be used in the country for certain official purposes, if English is the sole official language? Does official English offend the idea of American diversity? Does it discriminate against non-native speakers? Does an adequate incentive exist to learn English without it being official? Is there anything wrong with the status quo? Do most countries in the world have an official language? Is it important for any tangible and practical reasons? Do English only laws threaten or enhance public safety? Is official English good public policy?

See Wikipedia's "English-only" article for more background.

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Integration or discrimination: Does official English advance the former or later?

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Yes

  • Official English aids American assimilation President Theodore Roosevelt once said: "We have one language here, and that is the English language, and we intend to see that the [assimilation] crucible turns our people out as Americans."[1]
  • All US citizens should be able to speak English. Steve Balich, the Homer, Illinois township's clerk and author of a July 2010 resolution calling for official English: "We want the people who come to this country to become official U.S. citizens and to learn to speak. It's really as simple as that"[2] This is a common provision in many countries abroad, and a reasonable request by a government and nation that has always conducted its official governing in English.
  • "Official English" does not mean "English only""Why official English?": "Official English doesn't mean 'English only.' None of the 30 states with official English laws prohibit government agencies from using another languages when there is a compelling public interest for doing so. These include: protecting public health and safety, assuring equality before the law, promoting tourism, teaching foreign languages, providing for national defense, and many other legitimate, common sense needs." The government can act to provide these services when necessary. But, it is another thing entirely for a citizen to demand these services as a right.
  • Official English has nothing to do with discrimination. This isn't about race. People from every race come to the US and learn to understand the American dialect of English.
  • Suggesting learning English is too hard for some is racist. Suggesting that learning English is easy for some races and difficult for other races is, itself, racist. Anybody can learn English. It is not too high of a burden to ask them to do so in order to live in the United States.
  • Choice exists to learn language; Official English not discrimination. Real forms of discrimination aim at the inherent characteristics of an individual that they cannot change (such as their skin color or national origin). But, language is different, as an individual can choose to learn English. If they feel disadvantaged because they are not able to read government documents, ballots, or defend themselves in court, it is fully their choice to change this by learning English.
  • Too many languages for right to govt services in own language. There are over three hundred languages spoken in the United States. And, there are roughly 15 million American citizens (about 5% of the total population of 300 million) who do not speak English. Giving all of those individuals, in all of those different languages, the right to demand government services in their own language is preposterous. If we give Spanish speaking people this right, we would naturally have to extend the right to all the other 300 some-odd languages and those that speak them. This would unreasonably burden government services, adding a huge layer of bureaucracy and costs. Even then, inevitably, somebody with some obscure language will find that their "right" to have services provided to them in their own language will not be adequately fulfilled at some government facility. This is a bad combination in public policy; a right that cannot be provided adequately that nevertheless adds billions of dollars in extra costs for US government and taxpayers.
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No

  • Some countries do very well with many official languages. Switzerland has four official languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh. All four languages have equal status and children are educated in the language spoken in the region where they live. And, Switzerland is a country that has very strong unity and economic functionality.[3]
  • Official English discriminates against non-English speakers "Language Rights Are Protected Under Civil Rights Law." MALDEF on OpposingViews.com: "Language is not only a barrier to communication, but also an identifying characteristic of an individual’s ethnicity and national origin. [...] Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, ancestry, national origin or ethnicity. Section 601 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination based "on the ground of race, color, or national origin," in "any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title VI of the Civil Rights Act provides the foundation for ensuring nondiscrimination in all federal programs and services, including those provided to language minorities."[See extended argument on OpposingViews.com]
  • Official English is driven by anti-immigrant and racist sentiments Individuals involved in the official english movement are very often driven by anti-immigrant feelings, or pure racism. For example, John Tanton, the founder of the main political lobbying organization in this movement called US English, had to resign in 1986 after making derogatory remarks about Hispanics.[4]
  • Official English offends idea of American diversity America is a very diverse country that has been culturally enriched by immigrants from around the world. As a sign of respect to all these people it should not limit its citizens by introducing English as the only official language.

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English under threat? Is English under threat right now?

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Pro

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Con

  • English is not under threat nor needing protectionLinguistic Society of America Resolution on English Only. July 1, 1987: "The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional compulsion to learn the language." Indeed, roughly 94% of Americans already speak English. This is a very high number, compared to other countries that have much greater linguistic stratification. It is not necessary, therefore, to change anything and make any greater effort at compelling Americans to learn English.

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Learning English: Does official English encourage learning language?

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Pro

  • 15m Americans don't speak English; more incentives needed. While many say that there is plenty motivation for immigrants to learn English, then why is 5% of the population, 15 million, or 5 in every 100 individuals unable to speak English? Clearly, there is room for improvement, and Official English is a good way to give an extra boost of encouragement to those in the gap.
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Con

  • Incentive to learn English exists w/o making it official language "The Myth of English as a Threatened Language." MALDEF on OpposingViews.com: "Latino immigrants are learning English, and doing so as quickly as or more quickly than previous generations of immigrants. As is typical of immigrant populations in the United States, by the third generation most Latinos tend to speak only English. Latino immigrants, then, do not need official English or English-only legislation to coerce them into learning English; that desire and determination already runs deep in the Latino community."
  • Immigrants want to learn English, but not enough classes "The Myth of English as a Threatened Language." MALDEF on OpposingViews.com: "The problem is not that immigrants are unwilling to learn English, but that there are not enough available educational resources for them. Today, many thousands of immigrants throughout the country are on the waiting lists for adult English classes."

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