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"English Only" Laws Divide and Demean

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I had the pleasure of visiting my cousin in Antwerp, Belgium. One sunny day as we walked the promenade in this beautiful city, Charles, a fluent speaker of seven languages, posed a riddle to me: He asked, "What is it called when someone can speak three languages?" "Trilingual?" I guessed. "Okay," he said. "Now what is it called when someone can speak two languages?" I quipped, "Bilingual!" He said, "Yes. Now what is it called when someone can speak one language? "Monolingual?," I replied tentatively. "No," he laughed. "It's called U.S.-American!"

His riddle, though intended party in jest, shot to the very core of truth concerning our national linguistic perceptions and policies. While residents from virtually all nations inhabit this land and contribute to our collective identity and economy, a seeming linguistic isolationist code has taken hold of our national consciousness. Though French kisses our northern and Spanish our southern territorial perimeters, a long-standing egocentric and arrogant English as the only "official" language crusade infuses the landscape.

President Theodore Roosevelt clearly and firmly articulated this ethic in 1907: "We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house." (T. Roosevelt. Works (Memorial ed., 1926), vol. XXIV, p. 554, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons). Even as recently as March 2012, Republican candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum asserted that as a condition for U.S. statehood, Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaking territory, must require English as its primary language.

Though some advocates prefer the term "Official English," the English-only campaign surfaced as a movement around 1981 to push for a constitutional amendment banning all languages other than English in government proceedings and printed materials emanating from federal, state, and local governments. Realizing how difficult and tiresome is the process of ratifying a constitutional amendment, proponents changed tactics by lobbying Congress for a "Language of Government" law mandating official English in the federal government, though such legislation has never passed both houses by a simple majority. Since that time, movement activists have succeeded in passing laws mandating English as the "official" language in approximately 27 states, including my home state of Iowa in 2002.

The Iowa law decrees English only in the printing of all government documents and forms, except for driver's education materials, trade and tourism documents, and documents discussing the rights of victims of crimes, criminal defendants, and constitutional issues. Backers of the law argue that it not only saves tax payers the expense of printing materials in multiple languages, but that sharing a single and common language aids overall communications and brings people together into a unified patriotic community.

I argue that making English the official language in the United States or any state is about as necessary as establishing popcorn as the official snack at movie theaters. People will eat popcorn whether or not we codify it as "official," just as native-born residents and immigrants to our shores understand the necessity of establishing an individual functional command of English as a prime requisite for success and advancement. The "English Only" law has the effect, however, of marginalizing and demeaning non-native English speakers, decreases the likelihood of creating and maintaining multilingual programs, and gives us all the false impression that languages beside English are unimportant to learn, even though most other countries on the planet promote multilingualism.

My friend, a man of Mexican descent who grew up in San Antonia, Texas, told me recently how the English-only mandate in his elementary school negatively and unalterably impacted his self-esteem. Though fluent in English, one afternoon during recess period while playing basketball on the school yard, he alerted his friend and teammate in Spanish to get ready to catch the ball. Upon hearing this, a playground monitor ran up to him, grabbed him tightly by his left ear, and dragged him to the principal's office where he was forced to attend "Spanish detention." The overt and covert messages of this incident became crystal clear: your language and your culture are not welcome here!

I have established an online petition directed to the Iowa House of Representative, State Senate, and Governor Branstad to abolish our state's "English-only" law because I believe it falls under the definition of "Linguicism," prejudice and discrimination based on language. The petition has definitely struck a chord with a growing list of co-signers. According to one: "As a bilingual person, this law sickens me and demonstrates the ignorance of some Americans. Bilingualism and the use of languages other than English only promote our richness as a nation, our heritage, and ultimately help to protect our national security. No true patriot could support or tolerate this hateful law."

Rather than resisting the concept of multilingualism and multiculturalism viewing it as a challenge to our country's unity and very existence, we need to embrace our rich diversity. According to the National Association for Multicultural Education: "Multicultural education is a philosophical concept built on the ideals of freedom, justice, equality, equity, and human dignity as acknowledged in various documents, such as the U.S. Declaration of Independence, constitutions of South Africa and the United States, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. It affirms our need to prepare students for their responsibilities in an interdependent world." (Feb. 1, 2003)

Without a strong emphasis on multilingualism and multiculturalism in our schools and larger society, we will continue down the shameful historical path laid by those who have gone before us in the United States, which Joel Spring refer to as "cultural genocide" defined as "the attempt to destroy other cultures" (p. 3) through forced acquiescence and assimilation to majority rule and standards. This cultural genocide works through the process of "deculturalization," which Spring describes as "the educational process of destroying a people's culture and replacing it with a new culture" (p. 3).

The Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen (1915), coined the term "cultural pluralism" to challenge the image of the so-called "melting pot," which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the "melting pot" with its monolingualism), but rather, one in which all the disparate languages and cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.

Today, the United States stands as the most culturally, ethnically, racially, linguistically, and religiously diverse country in the world. This diversity poses great challenges and great opportunities. The way we meet these challenges will determine whether we remain on the abyss of our history or whether we can truly achieve our promise of becoming a shining beacon to the world.

To sign the petition, "Repeal Iowa's 'English-Only' Law," go to:
http://signon.org/sign/repeal-iowas-english