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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

Legislating Language, Practically

Working for a newspaper in a heavily Hispanic community, reporters are exposed to the realities of language on a daily basis.

In May 2007, during the first few days of an internship I was working with the El Paso Times, a Customs and Border Protection helicopter crashed into a residential area in San Elizario, Texas. Shadowing the reporter who was sent onto the scene, I was charged with interviewing a crowd of people in the neighborhood who had seen the crash.

San Elizario is a small, unincorporated community straddling the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso County. According to the 2000 Census, nearly 97.88% of all San Elizario’s residents are Hispanic, with more than 95% of those Hispanics identifying themselves as being from Mexican descent.

Those demographics showed during the interviewing process. When I approached a crowd of bystanders and asked several questions in English, no one responded. However, when I asked again in my admittedly rough-around-the-edges Spanish, several people in the crowd became very animated and gave me a detailed report of what they had seen and heard, about how far off the ground the helicopter was when it began to malfunction, and a general idea of how often helicopters patrol the area near the neighborhood, looking for illegal immigrants.

The experience left a deep impression on me, and helped open my eyes to the reality of the language debate currently raging around the country. A number of Americans are advocating for English to be accepted as this country’s “official language” in spite of the fact that there is a very large Hispanic community that would be directly alienated by such a move.

Various lobby groups are calling for the repeal of Executive Order 13166, signed by President Clinton in 2000, which requires federal agencies to provide services for persons with limited English proficiency. In the past, many legislators have introduced bills calling for an official language, and currently, H.R. 768, a bill that would repeal Clinton’s executive order, sits in committee on the floor of the US House of Representatives.

Advocates say that making English this country’s official language is a necessary step to reduce the costs of providing translation services and encouraging continuity among government bodies due to what one organization describes as “record numbers of non-English speaking immigrants threaten to overwhelm the assimilative process.”

Racial undertones and debates over illegal immigration aside, if there truly is a language crisis in the United States, legislating language is not the solution. Not only would adopting English as America’s “official language” be a purely symbolic gesture that would effectively amputate a large portion of the general population from the political process, but such legislation is an impractical waste of time and resources when other political options that address demographic realities could be exercised.

Instead of quibbling over p’s and q’s in a showy display of political theater, legislators should take the initiative to expand foreign language programs in the public schools and possibly even subsidize private language schools and programs. Many ESL (English as a second language) programs already exist in Texas public schools with large Hispanic communities, but with the current population boom underway – analysts project that Hispanics will soon overtake African-Americans as the largest minority group in the United States – these already under funded ESL programs will need to be expanded in the future.

Funding for adult programs should also be enacted if we hope to attain linguistic plurality, or, at the very least, if we hope to enact the otherwise unrealistic notion of a national language. After all, just because you make English the official language doesn’t mean everyone will magically be able to speak it by the next business day.

Studies have shown that children are more linguistically malleable than adults, and that adults may have a harder time picking up a second language. Since many Spanish speakers in Hispanic communities are adults, encouraging ESL literacy or mandating “official” English without addressing that crucial segment of the population is Sisyphean policy doomed to failure. Concentrating efforts on adults as well as children will help ensure that policy works and includes various strata of a language community.

As for English speakers, living like an ostrich with its head in the sand of monolinguism is no longer a viable option. In our increasingly globalized world, it is not only imprudent to speak one language – it’s also irresponsible. The Departments of Defense and State say monolinguism is a threat to national security, as, unfortunately for the intelligence community, most factions intent on harming the United States do not conduct their business in English. For that reason, both departments joined forces with the Director of Intelligence and the Education Department in January 2006 to implement the National Security Language initiative, which provides $57 million to schools teaching foreign language from the K-12 level.

Obviously, the implication is that students will be taught Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Hindi, and other Asian languages vital to the intelligence community. However, the ramifications of a program like this are far-reaching, especially in areas with large bilingual overlaps such as communities in West and South Texas. The program represents recognition of the reality that English isn’t the only language in existence.

With our own internal linguistic divisions, funding foreign language programs aimed at both English and Spanish native speakers in the public school is not only a very practical solution to the language “crisis” currently underway, but it is also a gesture of good faith to minority communities. Instead of burning the bridges behind us, we would build be building bridges of communication and create an environment where multilingualism is encouraged on all sides of the language gap.

Finally, it is important to remember that oppression in any form, real or perceived, is an unnecessary risk factor governments do not need to have working against them. Linguistic suppression is often used as a tactic by governments bent on genocide, and in extreme cases, backlash against perceived suppression can come in violent forms. Organizations such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army or Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) still use the suppression of their native languages as one of many examples of historical injustices used as indirect justification for launching terrorist attacks against civilians in Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom, Spain and France.

Spanish speakers argue that English speakers should learn the country’s largest minority language, and English speakers argue that Spanish speakers should assimilate by learning English. Both are correct. We live in an environment where shutting ourselves away from the realities of language is not only depriving us of meaningful cultural interaction – it’s also hurting our country by miring our lawmakers in a debate ironically caught up in rhetoric and semantics.

Still think English should be the only language spoken in the United States? Good luck telling that to the residents of San Elizario.

English/Spanish assimilation

James g smith

What is missing in the "national language" debate is the clear fact that the Eglish language contains a myriad(Greek) of words of Spanish origin, especially in the US Southwest. Moreover, the other roots in French and Italian have a common origin in Latin. Together they are called the Romance Languages."Anyone who has had more than one of the Romance languages can read any one of them quite easily for general understanding.
The migration to English from Spanish is facillitated by the common Latin root words. Sentence structure comes from common usage in daily life while learning the other roots in English such as German, Arabic, Russian, etc.

Every tourist knows the warm cameraderie that develops instantly when two strangers of different cultures attempt to awkwardly penetrate language barriers; smiles replace suspicion and trust enters the human experience. In the US, isolation is replaced with citizenship to the benefit of our democracy.

BBC team make US Spanish journey

BBC team make US Spanish journey:

Los blogs de BBC Mundo:

Democratically yours
Mark Coomes

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