Tennessee: English-only amendment flawed but raises valid concerns

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sun Jan 18 17:53:26 UTC 2009

English-only amendment flawed but raises valid concerns

By Wendy Wilson

Tennessee Voices

The debate surrounding the English-only charter amendment has bothered
me a lot in recent weeks because of the mean-spirited, close-minded
and knee-jerk reactions it has produced.

On the part of opponents.

Too many have been quick to label anyone who supports the amendment as
racist and xenophobic. At best, proponents are called ignorant and
insensitive. To be sure, Nashville has its share of people who are
hateful and cruel, judging by the ugly online comments to news stories
related to immigration. But with their dismissive attitude toward
anyone who has a different point of view, many opponents of
English-Only can hardly claim the high road.

I plan to vote against the amendment, primarily because I think backer
Eric Crafton has failed to articulate the specific policy changes that
would result from its passage. Instead of clearly outlining how the
amendment would substantially complement existing state law that made
English the official language of Tennessee in 1984, he has spoken in
vague generalities. His critics maintain he's grandstanding, and his
inability to provide details suggests they may be right.

Yet, as an ESL teacher who promotes assimilation, I believe in
encouraging a common language and culture. I have problems with
driver's license tests being offered in other languages, and I want to
know why students can take the GED in Spanish or French when they're
required to know English to be eligible to take the test. I would
welcome better thought out and more narrowly focused English policies
that are more likely to have a practical impact and limit the number
of unintended consequences.

The current English-only debate has been running high on emotion and
short on what's so badly needed: a patient and civil discussion of the
complex issues surrounding language, culture and immigration. Even the
well-meaning contributions of religious leaders fall short. Many
clergy have come out against Crafton's amendment, saying that holy
books teach us to "show hospitality to strangers." That's an important
teaching to bear in mind, but one that sounds smug if those voicing it
don't recognize that people with different opinions regarding language
policies might also genuinely share it. And such a sentiment can't
paper over the need to make difficult policy decisions.

I see firsthand how hard many children and adults work to learn
English, and I get frustrated with those who insist it should be a
quick process, when in reality it takes time. But I have also met many
immigrants who have lived here for years without making much of an
effort. Every day, there are fewer incentives to start trying as
government and business increasingly cater to language minorities.

The result is a divided culture in which those in the minority are
shut out of many of the opportunities available in the
English-speaking mainstream. It is not racist or xenophobic to raise
concerns about where we're headed. If only our leaders, such as Mayor
Karl Dean would be more worried about these issues, rather than
fretting that a European vacationer may nix his trip to the Music City
because English policies would make us "unfriendly."

Unfortunately, the failure of Crafton to develop clear goals for his
amendment has only helped opponents fill the vacuum with name-calling
and silliness.

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