“Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.” – Cesar Chavez
Before offering a blessing on the first day of the White Privilege Conference, Lakota Elder Dave Larson warned the crowd of more than 2000 that he was going to be offering the blessing in a language not native to this land, a language that comes from a small island in the Atlantic. The island is called England.
Let’s be clear. The United States has no official language. It was quite intentionally left out of the constitutional process by the founders. In fact, those states who have chosen to declare English as their official language can find themselves in a sticky situation if they hope to receive federal funds for citizen services because Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires that public entities receiving federal funds must offer vital documents in every language their clients speak. That’s right. The U.S. officially endorses your right to have a voter’s ballot in any language you like, and it is the responsibility of the state or federal agency to provide such a document.
322 languages are spoken in the country, with 24 of those spoken in every state and the District of Columbia. California has the most languages, with 207, while Wyoming has the fewest with 56. Declaring an official language would abridge the rights of individuals with limited English proficiency, individuals who are paying taxes and who are entitled to the same rights as those who speak English (Source).
Despite this reality, there is a growing “English Only” movement in the U.S.. I grew up in Grand Junction, CO, not exactly a hub for progressive and inclusive thinking. Growing up, I cannot tell you how many times I heard people say, “Speak English or get the hell out. If you can’t speak English, you don’t belong here.” Until I had some amazing mentors start to question some of the things I thought and did, I am ashamed to say that I even believed the sentiment. I even was known to tell Spanish-speaking people to go back to where they came from. How could I not? It’s something that was taught to me by those I trusted, even those in my family. “They need to learn to speak English” is a common statement when “those illegals” come up at family gatherings, and the anti-immigrant, anti-Spanish-speaking sentiment is undoubtedly tied to the deep-seated racism against Latinos that I, unfortunately, have to struggle to uproot from my subconscious.
Understanding the problematic nature of this sentiment means understanding the history of white, Anglo supremacy in this country. To say that people must speak English is not an innocent statement rooted in a desire to have a functioning society as is often asserted by those who argue for English-Only legislation. Demanding, mandating, and forcing those who don’t speak English to do so has been a tool of cultural genocide in the United States for a very long time. In an effort to “kill the Indian, save the man,” indigenous children were stolen from their families and forced into boarding schools where they were beaten if they spoke their first language. English was the only language allowed in these boarding schools. African slaves who spoke the same indigenous languages were separated upon sale to ensure that they could not hold onto their native culture and could not communicate to conspire for freedom. Those who were found speaking their indigenous language were savagely beaten. The Chinese Exclusion Act only allowed for Asian immigration of those with high levels of formal education, part of which had to include English-language instruction.