While casually browsing my twitter feed, I came across an article from WHIO (a CBS affiliate out of Ohio) stating that legislators in Washington were once again examining the prospect of making English the Official Language of these United States. I have a conflicted history with this particular issue, as I feel a common lingua franca is necessary to allow government to function effectively. That being said, I think such legislation is inherently detrimental to immigrant communities and is a measure to further strip political power from these same communities.

I’m sure many of conservatives would be more than happy to cite the Bible as a reference for justifying unification through a single language.

 

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Yes, indeed, it can be disruptive to have a poly-lingual society. There are costs associated with ensuring that there is translation services and translated documents available to our citizenry. Yet, attempts to dispense with these services altogether has an exclusive effect that hinders immigrant integration into American society as a whole. Fostering an inclusive environment for all-comers is becoming considerably unfashionable within conservative circles these days.

Sam Pimm, Executive Director of ProEnglish, made a statement that: “It’s not discriminatory. We’re trying to help people achieve the American Dream.” I vehemently disagree! In Medieval Europe the translation of Bibles from Latin to local vernacular was considered heretical by the Catholic Church; for if the common people could read and interpret the Bible for themselves, than the power of the clergy is diminished. So too, with the United States, this movement to make English the only language spoken and written in America (as far as official paperwork and procedures are concerned) is a means for the those of privilege to erect obstacles to empowerment by minority groups.

Furthermore, the most concerning element of this entire movement is to encourage the removal of translation services from electoral documentation. While Trump and his supporters bemoan the case of fictitious voter fraud (a fraud that never happened on the scale he claims, but also a fraud that obviously did not deter his entrance to the Oval Office), in the same breath, conservatives in House are finding new and creative ways to hinder people (well…let’s be honest, Latinos…since Spanish in America seems to be an unreasonable terror that haunts the dreams of conservatives) from participating in the democratic process. Also, we now have an attorney general that has a track record of supporting attempts to make English an Official Language (he co-sponsored the bill to do just that, S.678, twice); more nightmarish is that Jeff Sessions’ record on voting rights and civil rights is less than admirable, making implementation of such restrictive and discriminatory measures a very real possibility.

Do I get annoyed and frustrated if I’m at, say, the DMV or Grocery store when someone suffering from a language barrier makes me wait in line? Yes. This, however, is merely a pet-peeve of mine and only incurs a minor inconvenience to my daily routine. In such an instance I propose that translation services would enhance the efficiency of government processes in these scenarios. While I think that immigrants concerned with making America their home should find ways to learn English, if only to make their integration process easier; making English language proficiency a mandatory requirement for entering the country is wrong. If we are truly concerned with being open and willing to integrate newcomers, than one might consider government-sponsored English language programs to facilitate this process and such a service to provide rudimentary English skills should be free of charge (I’m starting to sound more and more like a liberal with my casual declarations to increase government spending).

As a second-language learner myself (Arabic and Persian) I value immersion as an effective and critical part of effectively learning any language. I would not, however, have become as proficient in my language studies were I provided no English support whatsoever. Simply to say, “You’re in America now. Speak English!!” is not only ignorant and close-minded but it is unrealistic. To expect our immigrant communities to navigate the labyrinthine corridors of government bureaucracy in a language they just became familiar with is unreasonable. In fact, many immigrants who have a functional command of English may still need help with more complex documents and policies. When you learn a language, you do not magically become a native speaker. Many native speakers of English struggle with the the processes of applying for health insurance coverage or supplemental income; to think a recent immigrant would have no issues doing the same is ludicrous. While a newcomer may have English language skills that do not pose a hindrance to their day-to-day activities or their jobs, having documentation and services in their native tongue is necessary. My Arabic can be classified as very good, yet, I’m very grateful for English language forms for for complex activities like applying for a visa, filing a police report or going through immigration and customs (all of which I have done). I simply don’t have that higher level vocabulary or am not as comfortable with it, since I don’t engage with the language on that level on a daily basis.

On the flip side, Americans need to be more open-minded. Why not make foreign languages mandatory in American schools? “I live in America! People should learn English! Why should I be bothered to learn Spanish?!” I firmly believe that language is the gateway to culture…at its core, it’s communication. Learning a language is fundamental to understanding other peoples’ point of views. It also is incredibly empowering. I can now function with relative ease when travelling abroad. Sure, English is commonplace almost everywhere you go in the World, but it is so much more satisfying to be part of the country you are visiting. The world owes us nothing simply for being Americans. It is this sense of entitlement that has espoused the rather unfortunate stereotype of the “Ugly American.”

Speaking of ugly Americans…is this attempt to make English the official language of the United States one that President Trump will support? While I have neither seen nor heard of any such official statement, it takes no great stretch of the imagination that this is an inevitability. I would only say that, judging from Trump’s own command of the English language, that he submit to a English class and consider that many immigrants speak with greater fluency and accuracy than this self-proclaimed champion of American Greatness. Trump’s first round at attempting to ban immigrants from entry to the United States has not gone well. Making English an official language of the United States is a more subtle and devious means to ban certain demographics from entering the country. Even more terrifying then that it is a measure that will attempt to withhold voting rights and essential government services from immigrant communities.

What languages should be mandatory for Americans to learn? Are you a Polyglot concerned with the state of second-language acquisition in this country? Comment and Subscribe for more articles!

 

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