U.S. English-only laws harm immigrants

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Dec 1 13:31:06 UTC 2005

from the Japan Times,

U.S. English-only laws harm immigrants

Special to The Japan Times

SANTA MARIA, California -- The Latino population has increased 500 percent
in the past 15 years in State Rep. Courtney Combs' district, located
between Cincinnati and Dayton. That has created a communication problem
between residents and government officials, according to Combs, a
Republican. In these situations, government agencies and business usually
do their very best to provide services in Spanish to accommodate these new
arrivals. Combs' solution goes totally in a different direction. He plans
to introduce a bill in the Ohio Legislature that will declare English the
official language of the state. The new law, if passed, would require
government agencies to produce documents in English only by the end of the

Combs' "solution" to make English the official language has already been
tried in 27 American states. It has not solved any of the problems related
to language and immigration. The number of U.S. residents born abroad has
continued to rise in the entire country regardless of the state official
language policy. Immigrants are not learning English faster because of the
fact that English has been declared the official language. Official
English legislation is mostly meaningless, but it does have a
psychological impact. For some, it's a boost since it sends a clear
message that English is the language of the country.

This is only partly true since more than 300 languages are spoken in the
U.S. to various degrees. Some languages are spoken by small groups of
people, but others, like Spanish, have millions of speakers. Thus English
could be appropriately described as the dominant language of the U.S. The
negative impact of official language emerges as a slap in the face to
immigrants. Since the U.S. is a country made up of people from every
corner of the globe, official English legislation tells them their
languages are not valid and as a result neither are they.

In essence, English-only laws go beyond language and try unsuccessfully to
take away the welcome mat the U.S. has always extended to immigrants. The
slap in the face is much more painful to Native Americans, who have been
living on the North American continent long before the first English word
was ever uttered in there. Having taken the land away from Native
Americans and having decimated their population, we're now telling them
that even their languages are not valid. Although Native Americans speak
English, they see their ancestral languages as a symbol of pride in their
culture. Official English adds insult to injury.

While official English legislation has few practical consequences, visible
effects can be traced to it. Some companies follow suit and declare their
job sites English-only areas. That may infringe on people's rights. A
number of companies have been sued because some employees claimed that
their bosses told them to speak English and only English for no practical
or legal reason. Lawsuits because of language discrimination have
increased significantly in the last 10 years. Some companies have had to
pay considerable sums of money in damages to employees whose rights have
been violated.

The damage caused by English-only laws affects the U.S. in other ways. The
tragic events of 9/11 revealed that our vulnerability to terrorists is due
in no small part to our linguistic limitations. U.S. government agencies
collect huge amounts of data in many languages that often is not analyzed
in a timely fashion because there aren't enough people fluent in foreign
languages. Some of this data may contain information that could very well
prevent future tragedies. English-only laws push Americans into believing
that if something happens in other languages, it won't affect us. That's
not true. Ignorance of other languages is dangerous. English-only laws
decrease our safety.

When legislators spend their time passing English-only laws, you have to
wonder what important issues -- perhaps involving life and death -- they
are not willing to address.

Domenico Maceri teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in
Santa Maria, California. His articles have appeared in newspapers and have
been cited by the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

The Japan Times: Dec. 1, 2005

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