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Fred Silberberg Headshot

The Effects of the Subjugation of English

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Yesterday I sat in court with my client, while opposing counsel sat with his. We waited patiently while the judge handled various other cases. Eventually, she called us and we started to present our case. About half-way through, the judge told us to step back as she had a case that required a Spanish interpreter. We were interrupted, and told to sit and wait while the case involving the Spanish interpreter was called, argued, and decided. This is not the first time that this has happened. It is a common occurrence. Two weeks prior, various other litigants and lawyers were told to step back and wait so that the court could deal with case requiring a Russian interpreter. In fact, more often than not, English-speaking litigants and their lawyers are told to stop their proceedings, or to wait, to allow for a case requiring a foreign language interpreter. This is but one example of how allowing the use of multiple languages for official business results in disparate treatment.

Although I am an American Citizen, I am a naturalized one. When I was a very young child when my parents and I arrived here from Germany. My memories of that time are rather vague, but I do remember, for a time, being unable to understand what people were saying to me. My parents each spoke three languages. For my mother, it was German, French, and English. My father spoke German, Hebrew and English. German was their primary language at that point and it was how they conducted themselves until we arrived at Kennedy Airport. When we arrived in the early 1960s, my parents did not expect anyone to speak to them in German, French or Hebrew and certainly, there were very few people around, except for family members, who would have been able to do that. As aliens, we were required to register at the post office, where no one spoke German. When my parents applied for Green Cards, no one spoke German, either. The telephone book was most certainly not in German, and if you called the Police or the Fire Department, and you needed help, you had to speak English to get it.

While my parents did have somewhat of a head start, English to each of them, was a third language and it took some time and effort to convert it to a first language, spoken by my father with an accent until the day he died in 2005. Five years after we arrived, my brother was born. My brother only spoke English. In our household, the only time my parents spoke German was when there were relatives visiting from Europe, or if they did not want my brother and I to know what they were talking about. My brother did not know what they were saying, but I, almost always did. In the present day, I speak Spanish fluently, and have only small remnants of my first language, German, stored somewhere in my head. My parents wanted us to be Americans. As a child, I wanted to be an American. I wanted to be treated like all of the other kids who lived in our neighborhood in Chicago. If my parents had to go to court back then, no one would have spoken to them in any language other than English, and my parents would not have expected anything different.

In our society today, it seems that there is no expectation that people should speak English. Government services are provided in Spanish and numerous other languages. Census statistics for Los Angeles County identify 15 commonly spoken languages. As a society, we have gone from expecting people who come to live here to speak our language, to one that facilitates allowing them to live here while continuing to speak their native language. We train government employees to speak these languages; we cater to non-English speakers in our court system. We print government forms in multiple languages. All of this was unheard of in the America that I arrived and grew up in.

It is this mindset of catering to speakers of foreign tongues that creates a disincentive for immigrants to learn English. There is no need to speak English if you settle in a neighborhood where your native language is predominant. There is certainly no need to speak English if the government is going to provide for your needs in your native language. But by catering to non-English speaking immigrants we are doing them, and ourselves, a disservice. By catering to foreign language speakers we are not forcing them to learn English. We leave them to function in their own microcosms of our greater society. We leave them in a situation where, more often than not, they cannot succeed economically on the same level as those people who speak English. To be sure, the vast majority of the cases called in the court system involving interpreters involve people of low socioeconomic standing. If these people are to be able to pull themselves and their children up to a higher socioeconomic level, they must speak English. By catering to them in their own language, we are, in effect, keeping them down.

We are also hindering ourselves. While America does not have an "official" language as do many nations, English is our language. When we cater to speakers of foreign languages we create additional burdens for society as a whole. Now we must employ people in the government who can communicate with non-English speakers, we must print items in multiple languages, and in the process, we often cause those people who speak English to be treated differently than those who do not. The example of what goes on in court illustrates this point.

I do believe that knowing more than one language is beneficial. If I travel, for example, to Spain, I do not expect people to speak to me in English. I think it is my responsibility to figure out a way to communicate. Yet, in my own country, people who speak Spanish now expect to be spoken to in Spanish, just as people who speak Vietnamese expect to be spoken to in their native language while in America.

If we want our society to continue to become more and more divergent, we will continue to cater to immigrants in their native tongues. But if we really want our society to be more cohesive, if we want everyone to be treated equally, the way to do that is to insure that people who live here speak the same language. There is certainly nothing wrong with speaking another language at home, amongst friends, or in social settings. There is nothing wrong with expressing oneself culturally in whatever manner is appropriate to that culture. But there is a problem when the expectation becomes one of entitlement to have everything provided to you in your native tongue. If we conducted ourselves, from a government standpoint in English, eventually immigrants who come here would do the same. They would have no alternative. And at that point, everyone would be treated equally.