Linguistic Discrimination: Speak English by force or by choice?

By Joshua Rivas

When I was growing up, I believed that I was able to speak Spanish wherever and whenever I pleased. I thought that the people around me would pay no mind to it.

This belief has stuck with me until about a year ago.

In October 2016, I finally realized that this country wasn’t as accepting as it led to believe. It was at a Walmart center where I saw an old man being ridiculed and scolded for speaking another language to his family.

I didn’t recognize the language he was speaking but I do know that the attacker was claiming that English was the number one language in America and he kept telling the old man and his family to leave this country.

This is where I was introduced to linguistic discrimination, which is basically the act of discriminating someone simply because of their language, accent, or dialect.

Its an unfair and unreasonable excuse to attack someone and it’s a growing event around the United States. In the U.S, it’s fair to say that English is the dominant language and you’ll hear it being spoken at almost everywhere you go in the country.

But, the U.S has not declared English as its official language. However, that does not mean that the states of the U.S have stopped from trying to make it so.

Hunter Schwarz, in an article on The Washington Post titled “States where English is the official language,” he states that 31 of the 50 states have made English as their official language and with Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia considering joining them.

Also, he states that “A 2010 Rasmussen poll found 87 percent of Americans approved of making English the official language, and 16 percent opposed.” The reason why the U.S as a whole has not made English as its official language is because the Constitution does not dictate that it should be.

But, there are particular events that proposes that the Constitution should include such an act. There is the “English-only Movement” which is a political movement for the use of only the English language in official United States government operations through the establishment of English as the only official language in the US.

There’s also Donald Trump who debated with Jeb Bush on September 16, 2015 about the use of Spanish in the United States. Tessa Berenson, in a Time article titled “Republican Candidates Spar Over Spanish on the Campaign Trail,” stated that “…frontrunner Donald Trump was asked about a comment earlier this month in which he argued that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush should ‘set the example’ by speaking English while in the United States.” Trump responded by saying, “We have a country, where, to assimilate, you have to speak English. We’ve had many people over the years, for many, many years, saying the same thing. This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.”

First of all, an individual can’t speak for everyone and decide what they should or should not speak.

Second of all, you don’t have to speak English in order to be successful in this country.

Finally, this country’s official language hasn’t been decided yet so saying that Americans speak only English is not accurate.

We can’t force any individual to speak a language they barely even know and we certainly can not force someone to not speak their native language. This directly conflicts with what was promised in the First Amendment — the freedom of speech. Many would even say that to be American, it means that you’ve got to learn English.

There are many faults within the arguments that these “English supremacists” conjure up. One is their apparent belief that “English is the American language. If you don’t speak English, then get out!”

Well, for one thing, English is not an American language. The native Americans were here long before English settlers arrived on this continent’s shores. So, their language is the true American language.

The English language can be traced back far away from the shores of America. Way back onto the mainland of Great Britain. Also, if you really want to go back, the English language of old was brought to England by the Germanic invaders of Germany, west Denmark, and the Netherlands.

So, technically, English wasn’t even from England to begin with. Before stating that English is an American language and only true Americans speak it, it would be wise to do a little research before making such a statement.

Another argument is that monolingualism is desirable for economic growth.

This is not true as Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Robert Phillipson and Mart Rannut have written about it in their book “Linguistic Human Rights: Overcoming Linguistic Discrimination.” They explain that, in many nation states the (uneven) distribution of of power and resources is partly along linguistic and ethical lines, with majority groups taking a larger share than their numbers would justify.

They compare states with different linguistic policies that show a correlation between poverty and multilingualism: “monolingual” Western states tend to be richer than multilingual non-Western states.

Simply put, the success of one-language states have made operations (industry, education, information,etc) more efficient. The writers also state that this inevitability involves the assimilation of minorities, i.e. no rights for minority languages, and support for activities and education in the majority language for minorities.

In fact, the relationship between multilingualism and poverty is not a casual one, as Joshua Fishman has shown in a thorough study of 120 states. Besides, monolingualism in a multilingual state is uneconomical and violates linguistic human rights.

Another argument would be that “It isn’t about language restrictions. It’s about unifying our nation under one language so we could better understand one another.”  

“It’s not about language restrictions,” said Karin Davenport, a spokesperson for U.S. English, which advocates to make the language official nationwide, according to Schwarz’s article. “It’s about making English the bond that ties us together in our diversity.”

As it turns out, U.S English.org is an advocate of the “English Language Unity Act” that has been reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 997) and the U.S. Senate (S. 678) for the 115th Congress.

According to Congress.gov, this Act would “…establish English as the official language of the United States.” There’s also rules set in this bill that must be followed if it was passed, like Naturalization ceremonies and official functions of the U.S. government, subject to exceptions, must be conducted in English.

The bill also states that all citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English language text of U.S. laws.

It says that all persons injured by a violation of this bill may obtain relief, including a declaratory judgment, in a civil action. English language requirements and workplace policies, whether in the public or private sector, shall be consistent with U.S. laws.

Any ambiguity in U.S. laws, the bill states, shall be resolved in accordance with the rights retained by the people and the powers reserved to states under the Bill of Rights. And, the bill states the Department of Homeland Security shall issue a proposed rule for uniform testing of the English language ability of candidates for naturalization based upon the principles that: (1) all citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws of the United States; and (2) any exceptions to this standard should be limited to extraordinary circumstances, such as asylum.

It feels as if this proposed act could potentially be a victory for the English-only Movement. But, at the same time, it robs the people of America of free will.

We can’t enforce anyone to learn a foreign language  by simply stating that it is the law.

I don’t see how this act would “unify” America. The United States is a country known for its diverse cultures, beliefs and languages.

The government cannot force learning another language onto the people.

Sure, it’d be easier to communicate with others from different countries, but it should be their choice. I’ve read the act and I haven’t read the consequences for not abiding by this if it became law.

It’d be hard to imagine to be thrown into prison because you don’t know English. If someone wants to learn English then let them, but if they don’t, that’s their decision as well.

If the U.S truly does embrace the idea of being a nation where you could be anyone you want, then why does it wish to infringe upon the very reason why many immigrants come to this country — the freedom of choice.

Joshua Rivas studies history at Fresno State. This article was written for Rivas’ Chicano and Latin American studies class.