[lg policy] It’s a free country, but don't speak your own language

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat May 26 10:59:12 EDT 2018

 It’s a free country, but don't speak your own language
By Jin-Ya Huang, opinion controbutor — 05/25/18 03:30 PM EDT 269
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The
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[image: It’s a free country, but don't speak your own language]
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America has gone from land of the free to home of the not-so-brave, where
some people push for an English-only movement
Last week an irate white male lawyer threatened to call immigration
officials on employees at a New York restaurant because they were speaking

And, recently the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit
against Albertsons <https://www.washingtonpost.com/?utm_term=.ba7474961e8d>
grocery stores, alleging the company subjected its Hispanic workers to
harassment and a hostile work environment by implementing a no-Spanish

This form of linguistic paranoia should be banned — not the practice of
people speaking their own native language.

When we moved from Taipei, Taiwan, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, my family lived in a
predominantly white neighborhood, and I attended school with a small number
of students of color. My middle school started an English Second Language
(ESL) class because of me.

I hung out with the black kids and the punk rockers at lunch as an “other.”
I longed to live in a more racially diverse area where I might have the
chance to speak Chinese to anyone other than my mom, dad or my sisters. I
thought this would happen once we got to a more metropolitan city like
Dallas, Texas.

But one night while dining out, I tried to speak Mandarin to a waitress who
had been speaking Chinese to the kitchen staff behind the counter; she
replied to me in English, completely ignoring my request to acknowledge our
common cultural grounds. I was shocked.

Only about one in four Americans can hold a conversation in a second
Thirty-two U.S. states have Official English
<https://www.usenglish.org/official-english/research-statistics/> laws.
English is the official language in 51 nations throughout the world. This
low level of inclusion and diversity does not translate to equity in policy.

My ex-husband was mindful of this. He is white and speaks only English.
When we visited with my family, he often thought they were speaking ill of
him in Chinese. This insecurity led to many miscommunications and
misunderstandings that are reflected often in our society. The average
immigrant or refugee living in extreme poverty does not have immediate
access to school or language skill training. Becoming proficient in English
is a challenge.

On one hand, this movement could help establish unity by  preserving the
English language and assisting new arrivals in learning English. On the
other hand, this movement restricts free speech, increases discrimination
and promotes division. These may be the reasons why the United States
Constitution does not establish an official language
<https://www.usconstitution.net/consttop_lang.html>, and legislative
attempts to do so have not been successful, so far.

We need to seek empathy and understanding with those who face language
barriers. Not having language is a disability and it should be considered
in the Americans with Disabilities Act
<https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/disability/ada>. Without access to a
language, people are just as debilitated as the blind or the deaf when it
comes to access to information.

The attitude that people who come to this country must speak English is
antiquated and does nothing to bolster the concept of human centered design
in resolving the world's most difficult problems. This outdated idea of
"English only" prevents immigrants from being able to contribute fully to
society, when all most of us want to do is to become participating and
productive citizens.

Feeling too intimidated to speak your native tongue should not be an issue
at work or during your personal time. Our constitution guarantees free
speech, so  clearly those on both sides of this debate should be able to
express their opinions; but this should not be a company’s policy or the
law. To be asked to hush in the library when we’re too loud is one thing,
but to silence anyone for simply speaking to his or her fellow neighbors in
their own language is absolutely unacceptable.

We have to urge corporations to reexamine their human resources handbook on
what’s appropriate regarding language usage in the workplace. Otherwise
we’re in danger of not having the valuable resources immigrants and
migrants can bring to the workforce simply because they don’t speak
English. That is not the America we signed up for.

*Jin-Ya Huang is the founder of Break Bread, Break Borders, which is a
social entrepreneurship that provides economic empowerment to refugees
through sharing food and culture.  She is a Dallas Greenhouse Public Voices
Fellow with The OpEd Project. *


 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

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