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Race Card: An English-Only America?

In 40 years, guess which country will be the largest Spanish-speaking nation on earth? The United States of America. To boot, Spanish will be just behind Chinese as the most commonly spoken language in the world.

These are, of course, only predictions. They come from a good source, though—Humberto López Morales, general secretary of the Association of Spanish Language Academies. But some Americans are already taking steps to prevent Morales' first prediction from coming true. Iowa Rep. Steve King reportedly plans to reintroduce a bill that would make English the official language of the U.S. The bill would require those trying to become naturalized U.S. citizens to be tested on their ability to read, write and speak English. It would also require that those pursuing U.S. citizenship be tested on their comprehension of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and related texts. Lastly, it would mandate that official functions of the U.S. government be carried out in English, which could mean that voting ballots would appear in no language besides English.

This bill fails on so many levels. To start with, why declare America an English-only country now? For years, immigrants of German, Italian, Norwegian, etc. descent came to this country and not only conducted business in their native languages but even educated their children in them. Proposing an English-only America now raises the idea that King isn't so much concerned with having a unifying language for the country but that the U.S. has been attracting the wrong kind of immigrants—non-white ones. King's remarks on race in recent months don't help matters.

In December, when the federal government finally paid a settlement to African-American farmers who experienced years of discrimination, King accused President Obama of giving them reparations for slavery. Never mind that these farmers had been systematically denied loans and subsidies that led to them losing their livelihoods. The settlement had nothing to do with that and everything to do with a sneaky black president getting back at the man by handing out reparations. (Right.)

Unfortunately, this wasn't the first time King tried to put Obama on blast. Last June he not only flatly stated that Obama favors black people but attacked Attorney Gen. Eric Holder in the same vein. He accused Holder of saying "white people in America are cowards when it comes to race." But Holder never said that. In fact, he called America a nation of cowards when it comes to race.

Who knows? Maybe King made this mistake because in his mind America and white are one in the same. And that mindset is the driving force behind his vision of an English-only United States.

Why, for example, does King want immigrants to be tested on their comprehension of the Constitution, when native English speakers have trouble digesting its antiquated language? And the possibility that ballots would be printed exclusively in English is really frightening. I live in a community where Spanish, Armenian, and Tagalog are all commonly spoken, along with English. I want my neighbors to exercise their right to vote because they care as much as I do about what happens in the community. The fact that some of them don't speak English fluently doesn't negate that.

Arguably, what's most upsetting about the proposed English-only legislation is the notion that immigrants somehow resist learning the language. Do some people feel insecure about their English-speaking ability? Sure, but insecurity and resistance aren't the same thing. When I taught at a mostly Latino school, the top goal parents had for their children is that they be fluent in English. And a 2007 report by the Pew Foundation bears this out. It found that although 23 percent of Latino immigrants spoke English very well, 88 percent of their children did, and 94 percent of their grandchildren did.

There's no conspiracy on the part of immigrants against English. Newcomers to the U.S. just often lack the resources needed to learn it. If the industries that typically hire immigrants provided opportunities for them to master the language, you can bet the number of English-speaking immigrants would rise.

Overall, what's so sad about the English-only legislation is that conservatives like King deny being xenophobic. They say they're anti-illegal immigration and welcome those who come to the U.S. with papers. Yet, the legislation King has in the works would damage legal immigrants the most.

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Comments

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Steve King for Lifetime Douchebag Decree

He's such a bigot. I first heard of him while reading the records on DOMA. He was the one making comments on how this is a "Christian" nation and that marriage goes back "historically to Adam and Eve". Every time there's something nasty afoot in Congress, he's behind it. Poor Iowa.

English as the only language for the USA

Considering how badly a lot of native English speakers in this country mangle the language and how many of them can't write a coherent sentence, maybe we should test them on their English speaking ability before allowing them to be citizens.

Ha ha, cheers to that. I want

Ha ha, cheers to that. I want to see more focus on education and also healthcare -- things that will actually keep the US competitive, not xenophobic bullshit scare tactics.

As someone who works in the

As someone who works in the most diverse elementary school in the nation (70% of our kids speak a language other than English at home), not only do the kids want to learn English, but the parents go to English classes as well. They do want to be able to communicate in their communities and be active members in their new country.

And frankly, if our nation looked, acted and sounded anything like the kids at my school, I'd be insanely proud to be American.

Just want you to know ...

I do like your comment and it's good that there is desire among your school's other-than-English speaking students and their families to learn more of the English language. I was pointing out in my comment how insane this English-only proposal is, and that politicians and lawmakers/enforcers should not be shaming and punishing those people who may have difficulty learning the language, or who do not wish to learn the language for various other reasons, including maintaining the pride and preservation of their own cultural heritage.

King is, unfortunately, no joke.

King and Bob VanderPlaats (who spearheaded the campaign to oust the supreme court justices last year who ruled that gay marraige is a right) are conspiring ... among others in the right-wing ... to make yours, mine, and everyone else's private lives beyond miserable. King does not represent the district I live in, but there are constant battles all over our state among the religious right and progressives, like me, who constantly struggle with our lives of advocating justice and equality for ALL people living here while remaining in the "closet," because it is so easy to be singled-out here if you are "different" (People in small towns really do know everyone and everyone's business, and not always in a good way of civil, community discourse and spirit. More like meddling busy-bodies). It's getting worse here and OneIowa (a group here representing GLBT's) is right to point out that the recent ban on gay marriage that passed the state house legislature (but probably will not pass in the senate) is making our state divisive. It was divisive over this and many other hotbed issues long before the state supreme court ruling. The religious right is taking over our state one square mile at a time.

While I don't want to sound completely off-topic, I want to point out from personal experience that the English language I am writing in now is NOT an easy language for someone speaking another language to learn. This English-only language proposal is right-wing alarmist, clearly racist and xenophobic nonsense. If only these "leaders" had the empathy to see from those who do not speak English how they have no desire to, in part to maintain the culture and heritage they honestly represent. Cultural and language assimilation is not particularly good for everyone.

I also happen to live near a once-dying small town that has come alive again, thanks to immigrants! They are friendly, helpful, committed, hard-working, respectful people here and it was only in the last few years where there has been hatred and crimes made against some of them. Deeply troubling.

There is a glimmer of hope. Follow the blogforiowa.com blog for many things progressive about Iowa, and if you are a progressive iowan reading this, I encourage you to begin coming out of that "closet" and become more involved in your community standing up for what's GOOD about EQUALITY, even if it is a conservative one.

note

The "supreme court justices" I was referring to are the Iowa State Supreme Court Justices.

"There’s no conspiracy on the

"There’s no conspiracy on the part of immigrants against English. Newcomers to the U.S. just often lack the resources needed to learn it. If the industries that typically hire immigrants provided opportunities for them to master the language, you can bet the number of English-speaking immigrants would rise. "

THIS. I get so tired of people saying that immigrants should "learn english." Do you know how freaking hard it is to learn English? It's one of the hardest languages in the world to learn if you're not a native speaker. And they can absolutely learn it but, as you said, they need the resources to do it. Also, learning a language takes time. Even if they have the resources and are using them, they won't learn it in a week!

It's one of the hardest

It's one of the hardest languages in the world to learn if you're not a native speaker.

Where did you hear that? I think it's bullshit and English is pretty easy as languages go, starting with how far-spread and well-researched it is, but I would love to see some actual data on the matter as well.

Apart from that, I agree with your point completely. Where is the logic of demanding the immigrants to learn English if they do not come from privileged backgrounds where education is readily available to most of the population? Or is that the whole point, that non-privileged immigrants are the wrong kind? It reminds me of this suggestion that Finland demand biometric passports from immigrants from countries like Somalia etc. I am not really aware if biometric identification is in use in most African countries, but I would imagine that it would cost a fucking fortune for anyone wishing to emigrate because of the social and economical instabilities in their home country, and quite probably prevent them from achieving that.

From what I understand the

From what I understand the spoken language is relatively on par with the major commonly spoken languages, but becoming literate in English is more difficult due to spelling inconsistencies. English doesn't represent phonemes using a consistent system due to various historical influences on the language (influx from other languages, especially latin, piecemeal attempts at spelling reforms, etc.). I remember there being a chart in my child development textbook about when children from various different countries learn to be fluent in their first language; IIRC English-speaking children scored lowest on tests of fluency at earlier ages (I believe Chinese and French were also at the bottom).

I think this highlights something often forgotten about language learning-- there are many components to learning them, such that an immigrant might have competent spoken English but may not be fluently literate in English and may still require a ballot or healthcare directions written in their native language. They might not even be literate at all and must figure out the whole reading and writing thing on top of learning another language. Someone who learned English in school or through independent learning materials may be extremely wary about their spoken English and have significant trouble with conversational speaking. Even someone with relatively good English skills might want to double check that they've read a passage correctly or clarify a difficult phrase, or give materials to their friends and family who don't know English. And as people have noted, it takes time to become competent in a language, and it doesn't happen without resources and time you can devote to learning it, so new learners or those who don't yet have the means to study English still need resources available for them in a language they already use.

(This of course ignores those who don't want to learn English or who never bother for whatever reason, but I just can't get worked up about these people. Yeah, sure, it's best to learn the nationally dominant language, if there is one, because you won't be able to access a number of opportunities without it, but if you make an uncompelled choice not to learn it and can get by in your local community, whatever. There are plenty of multilingual nations; there is no reason why "being an American" requires "being an English speaker".)

"Official language" initiatives are really merely political grandstanding at the expense of underprivileged groups; if Rep. King really thought low English skills were the main issue here he'd be promoting English education resources rather than making it more difficult for immigrants and others to access government resources and understand their political rights and duties.

I remember there being a

I remember there being a chart in my child development textbook about when children from various different countries learn to be fluent in their first language; IIRC English-speaking children scored lowest on tests of fluency at earlier ages (I believe Chinese and French were also at the bottom).

This supports my early experiences with learning English. I learned to read the language before speaking or writing, and I think that is the case in most places where you learn a language through textbook exercises and basic conversation. I never had any trouble spelling or keeping up with the difference between the written and the spoken word, but in my class there was a girl whose father was an American immigrant and spoke English with her at home - her problems with spelling seemed disproportionate compared to the rest of us who had never before spoken English in our lives.

But, as you said, that chart was about the children's fluency in their first language. It doesn't say anything about learning a second language (for immigration purposes or otherwise), possibly when you're already a grown-up, which I think is the issue here. There is a difference between learning to speak first and the situation where you learn to read first and only then take up the speaking. However this does not negate the point you and others have already made, that a lot of people do not necessarily have access to the resources for learning in the first place.

They might not even be literate at all and must figure out the whole reading and writing thing on top of learning another language.

This, I think, is the most important point of all.

Someone who learned English in school or through independent learning materials may be extremely wary about their spoken English and have significant trouble with conversational speaking.

This sounds to me to be more about the speaker's personality than a problem special to immigrants.

Even someone with relatively good English skills might want to double check that they've read a passage correctly or clarify a difficult phrase

I think this happens to everybody, even those who've been lucky enough to have access to the resources necessary for learning a language in the first place. Personally I don't care anymore if I sound like a twat in a language that is not my first, or hold it against anybody else in the same situation. I know from experience that even a couple of months in an environment where you can barely understand the dominant language is immensely stressful and makes even the basic everyday life so much harder.

And as people have noted, it takes time to become competent in a language, and it doesn't happen without resources and time you can devote to learning it, so new learners or those who don't yet have the means to study English still need resources available for them in a language they already use.

This is so true, with all languages and all backgrounds. I think it would only be fair if we in the privileged countries would give the less advantaged a chance to learn rather than sending them back home for incorrect spelling or speaking with an accent.

English as official language

All of Americas important documents "Constitution, Bill of Rights, Laws and Legislation" are written in English. Therefore, it makes sense for English to be the official language of the US. Having an official language would unify the country and help citizens communicate. America seems to be unique in our usage of so many different languages without one that is dominant. Also, I doubt most people would travel to a foreign country and not learn the language, at least perfunctory sentences, and if they were to move to another country I dont think they would expect that country to cater to their language needs. For example, I would not travel to France and expect every person to speak english or for every document to be printed in english.