[lg policy] Why California Needs to Take Bilingualism Seriously

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue Jun 5 10:36:32 EDT 2018


 Why California Needs to Take Bilingualism SeriouslyLanguage rights,
immigration, and identity formation are intrinsically linked.
By Michael Leger <https://www.thenation.com/authors/michael-leger/> Yesterday
4:50 pm

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[image: Bilingual classroom California]
<https://www.thenation.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/california-children-bilingual-classroom-ap-img.jpg>

Children read in a Spanish-immersion classroom at Escondido Elementary
School in Palo Alto, California, March 2006. (AP Photo / Marcio Jose
Sanchez)
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With US Attorney General Jeff Sessions suing outgoing Governor Jerry
Brown’s administration
<https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/06/us/politics/justice-department-california-sanctuary-cities.html>
over its self-declared sanctuary status and the national media paying rapt
attention to its June 5 primary, California is, increasingly, a bellwether
of the national left. But does the state have the clear political and
cultural vision that the left so desperately needs?

California’s gubernatorial race has focused on education and on the
economy—all the typical talking points—but we haven’t heard a more robust
discussion of how Californians think about belonging and identity. To fully
realize this discussion, we need to consider language rights, as they are
central to how any state is supportive of diversity. Improving access to
bilingual education—as the state did in 2016 by passing Proposition 58
<https://www.thenation.com/article/bilingual-education-is-back-on-the-ballot-in-california/>—is
not enough. Embracing bilingualism fully by adopting Spanish as a second
official language should be on the table as we try to broaden our
imagination of, and legislation on, who belongs.

The United States has a strange relationship to language rights. Although
the federal government has no official language, in recent decades
individual states—California included
<https://www.nytimes.com/1986/11/26/us/california-braces-for-change-with-english-as-official-language.html>—have
adopted English as an official language, largely in response to a puzzling
English-only movement. But, of course, English is not the only significant
American language. One-third of California’s citizens speak Spanish at home.
<http://www.dof.ca.gov/Reports/Demographic_Reports/documents/2011ACS_1year_Rpt_CA.pdf>
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Despite not having an official language, the United States has historically
required immigrants to have English skills. It was only in 1906
<https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/59th-congress/session-1/c59s1ch3592.pdf>
that speaking English became necessary for naturalization. Suddenly, after
more than a century of a more open language policy, not knowing English
meant being a foreigner. In 1950
<http://www.lawandfreedom.com/site/special/English.pdf>, legislation was
tightened, requiring immigrants to demonstrate English reading and writing
skills in order to naturalize. Requiring newcomers to be familiar with
English did not change the fact that English was already the de facto
language for most of the country, but it did serve an exclusionary function
of dissuading certain groups of immigrants and alienating the Americans who
were not Anglophones.

The current model in California disenfranchises 10 million native Spanish
speakers—a third of the state’s population.

I was raised in New Brunswick, Canada’s only bilingual province. Just like
the States, Canadian provinces adopt their own official languages. While
the federal government recognizes English and French, New Brunswick is the
only province that does the same. What this means for New Brunswick is that
all provincial services, in addition to federal services, are provided in
both languages. Even getting your driver’s license and applying for hunting
tags can be done in French
<http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/fr/services/services_renderer.200853.Moose_Hunting_Licence_.html>
.

Though education in French is common across the country, it is only in New
Brunswick that the government recognizes the right to distinct educational
institutions. While much of the population is bilingual, it’s important
that the law allows for the 30 percent of Francophones to move through the
public sector in their native tongue. Prominent public intellectuals like Will
Kymlicka <https://kf.or.kr/file/pdf/Will%20Kymlicka.pdf> and Charles Taylor
<http://elplandehiram.org/documentos/JoustingNYC/Politics_of_Recognition.pdf>
have shaped Canadians’ understanding of these policies, emphasizing that
the state does not have a neutral role when it comes to identity formation.

The current model in California disenfranchises 10 million native Spanish
speakers—a third of the state’s population. The state’s official stance
tells them that there is no room for their language in the political sphere
and that Spanish is not a legitimate public language, making Spanish
speakers sound like foreigners. There is a reason my grandfather did not
teach French to my mother: He did not want her to have a French accent.
Only a couple of generations ago in New Brunswick, the class divide was
drawn along linguistic lines. The dynamic is not the same today, and the
legislation of bilingualism in 1969 certainly played a part in engendering
that shift. If the California legislature operated in both languages and if
every law were published in both languages—as was the case for the first 30
years
<http://www.sos.ca.gov/archives/collections/constitutions/1849-constitution-facts/>
of the state’s Constitution, after the Mexican-American war—Latinos, who
represent 38 percent
<http://www.dof.ca.gov/Reports/Demographic_Reports/documents/2011ACS_1year_Rpt_CA.pdf>
of the state’s adult population but only 18 percent
<http://www.ppic.org/publication/race-and-voting-in-california/> of those
most likely to vote, would likely feel a greater desire for political
participation as well as a greater sense of belonging.
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What if there was a greater expectation for politicians to speak Spanish?
What if there were a Spanish-speaking university in California? Adopting
Spanish as a co-equal language would legitimize Latinos’ historical and
cultural importance in the state, and it would also bring more attention to
pressing issues—jobs, education, health care—that disproportionately affect
Latinos
<http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/02/top-issue-for-hispanics-hint-its-not-immigration/>
today. While the state does provide some services in Spanish already, it’s
at times more for the image than for real equality. It’s telling that the
Spanish translation of John Chiang’s campaign website
<https://johnchiang.com/es/> lacks, presumably out of neglect, a
translation of what should be the most important part: his policy page.

Bilingualism would not solely benefit Latinos. It is in everyone’s interest
to live in a state that does not politically and culturally marginalize a
third of its population. In 2016, Proposition 58, the California
Multilingual Education Act, passed easily with 73 percent
<http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/trailguide/la-na-election-day-2016-proposition-58-bilingual-1478220414-htmlstory.html>
of the vote. This is a sea change from 20 years ago, when Californians
passed Prop 227, a bitterly debated anti-bilingual-education law, and
suggests broad support now for bilingualism. Especially in today’s racially
divided, anti-immigrant landscape, a bilingual California would show that
we can alter American identity—as represented by the government—so that it
is closer to reality.

The English-only movement makes economic and political-unity arguments
<https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.usenglish.org/gather-talking-points-on-official-english/&ust=1528228320000000&usg=AFQjCNGYLTbgA38o6XzDlwV9aTg5oeD-IQ&hl=en&source=gmail>,
but those arguments are thin cover for anti-immigration and racist
sentiment. One of the original founders of the English-only movement in the
1980s, John Tanton <https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/us/17immig.html>,
was a strong opponent of immigration and was accused several times of
making blatantly racist comments. The movement continues to have force
today. Most recently
<https://www.google.com/url?q=https://proenglish.org/2018/02/15/sen-inhofe-introduces-english-language-unity-act-amendment/&ust=1528228380000000&usg=AFQjCNG2IIprCHLPBpapZQWCSiEWSUIaZg&hl=en&source=gmail>,
Senator Inhofe brought forth the English Language Unity Act in February.
It’s worth highlighting that this law is not just an endorsement of the
English language, but a rejection of the use of any other language in
government. I doubt Americans are somehow distinct from the rest of the
world in their ability to operate in more than one language. This suggests
that the English-only movement really masks something deeper: a
misconstrued sense of what builds a community and makes a citizen truly a
citizen.

Stripping the right of 10 million Californians to use their first language
in political life is not equal treatment. The desire to maintain an
English-only government arises from a desire to keep certain people out of
political life, and from a flat-out wrong image of the ideal Californian.
Hawaii
<https://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/hrscurrent/Vol01_Ch0001-0042F/05-Const/CONST_0015-0004.htm>
and Alaska
<https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/04/21/305688602/alaska-oks-bill-making-native-languages-official>
recognize languages other than English. New Mexico’s language history is
similar to California’s, and it increasingly conducts political
business, including
political debates
<https://www.politico.com/story/2014/10/new-mexico-spanish-debate-111654>,
in Spanish. If California—the largest state in the nation, with the biggest
economy—adopted bilingualism now, it would force a national reckoning of
what it means to be American and whether a Spanish speaker can say
affirmatively, “Soy americano/a.”
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Michael Leger <https://www.thenation.com/authors/michael-leger/>Michael
Leger grew up in New Brunswick, Canada, and currently attends Deep Springs
College in Eastern Californ


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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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