Monday, May 22, 2006

English Only?

Let assume for a moment that those who are in favor of making English the national language of the United States are racists who only want to make it the national language in order to exclude a certain sector of society from participation in American civil and economic life. Let us make that assumption. Does that mean that they are right about the outcome of such a law, or that it would not be a good idea?

Because English is not the national language, we have many legal documents in both English and Spanish, since many recent immigrants are Spanish-speakers. As a result, these recent immigrants do not have to learn English. They can continue to speak English and still participate in civil life, including vote. Does this actually benefit those Spanish-speakers?

Many argue that it allows these people to vote. I find this doubtful, since people’s names are not either English or Spanish. English speakers do not refer to my fiancee as Ms. Flowers – they call her Ms. Flores. So what is actually going on? One of the benefits of English-only would be that people would again be encouraged to learn English, which would help them to be more easily and rapidly integrated into American society. This would also allow them to have more and better economic opportunities. Even those who do not think people should have to learn English to be either a resident or citizen know this – which only makes me wonder why they want these Sanish-speakers to be deprived of the kinds of economic opportunities they can only get through knowing English.

If we acknowledge that many of those who are in favor of English-only (except, as it turns out, the president of the main group that is pushing for English-only, whose native language is Spanish and who also speaks several other languages) have racist motives, then we have to acknowledge too that those who want people to remain in ignorance at the very least do not have Spanish-only-speakers’ best interests at heart. This is assuming that this latter group are not themselves racists – I suspect they are, only far more clever ones than those English-only supporters who happen to be racist.

If someone really wants immigrants to do well, they would want them to learn English so they can have access to as full a range of economic opportunities as possible. One way of doing this is by making English the official language of the United States. And if someone really wants all our students to do well, they will want those students to learn foreign languages when they can learn them — starting in Kindergarten. There is no conflict between these two positions. We should support the learning of English by all people who come to the United States, and at the same time, we need to be teaching our students as many foreign languages as possible. There is certainly no reason why students should not be learning to speak, read, and write in both English and Spanish in their first few years of school. All linguistic research shows that children can learn languages best at this age, that they do not get confused, and that it only benefits their thinking and future education.

The official position of the U.S. government should then be that English is the official language of the U.S., and that if one wants to be a resident or, especially, a citizen, one has to know English. But the official position of the U.S. government should also be that all students learn at least one foreign language – so that all students will have more economic opportunities in this increasingly globalized world.
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