“Speak American” – Multilingualism and the English-Only Movement

“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.

While English-Only campaigns have targeted just about every non-English-speaking group of immigrants in the history of the U.S., the current vitriol is largely targeted at Spanish-speaking Latino immigrants.  As a result, the English-Only movement, as has often been the case in our history, is inextricably tied to racism against those who do not speak English (or don’t speak it in the white vernacular that is prized by our dominant culture).  Spanish is often described as a “dirty” language, one spoken by those who are lesser-than, who are other, who are not American.  As a result, “the 50 million Latinos in this country—16.3 percent of the population according to a new Pew Hispanic Report, are not accepted or seen as real Americans, regardless of [their] legal or professional status” or their ability to speak English fluently (Source).

Bills like SB1070 in Arizona and those popping up in 8 other states only reinforce that Latinos (or anyone else that the police think doesn’t look ‘Murcan) aren’t “real Americans.”  Coincidentally every one of the states has passed legislation making English (and no other language) the official language of their state.  With anti-Latino hate crimes on the rise, one cannot separate the “Speak English or Get the Hell Out” movement from laws like SB1070 or from the rising violence perpetrated against Latinos.  This mentality is even infringing on the rights of children in schools and the First Amendment rights of Spanish-speaking parents, as schools tell students and parents that they are not allowed to even speak Spanish within the school building, something the National Education Association called “government-sanctioned bigotry.”  Further, since large swaths of the United States as we know it was stolen from Spanish-speaking Mexico in the Mexican-American War of U.S. territorial aggression, and all of this country’s land was stolen from the indigenous who were here before our white boots first “mercilessly hit the ground,” what right do we have to tell people to speak English on land where folks have been speaking Spanish and countless indigenous languages for longer than that land has been a part of the U.S.?

MYTH: Immigrants—particularly Latino immigrants—don’t want to learn English.
FACT: Immigrants, including Latino immigrants, believe they need to learn English in order to succeed in the United States, and the majority uses at least some English at work.

Throughout our country’s history, critics of immigration have accused new immigrants of refusing to learn English and to otherwise assimilate. These charges are no truer today than they were then. As with prior waves of immigrants, there is a marked increase in English-language skills from one immigrant generation to the next. In the first ever major longitudinal study of the children of immigrants, in 1992 Rambaut and Portes found that “the pattern of linguistic assimilation prevails across nationalities.” The authors go on to report that “the linguistic outcomes for the third generation—the grandchildren of the present wave of immigrants—will be little different than what has been the age-old pattern in American immigration history.”
While many first-generation Latino immigrants are unable to speak English, 88 percent of their U.S.-born adult children report that they speak English very well. And studies show that the number rises dramatically for each subsequent generation. Furthermore, similar to other immigrants, Latinos believe that they need to learn English in order to succeed in the United States, and believe they will be discriminated against if they don’t. Most Latino immigrants (67%) report that they use at least some English at work.
Source: ACLU’s Immigration Myths and Facts

Further, not only is the English-Only movement an inherently hate-filled and white-, Anglo-supremacist one, but it is ill-advised if we wish to foster the cognitive growth of our citizenry.  Multiple studies have found that multilingualism is undeniably cognitively beneficial for a society, ensuring that those who speak more than one language have more efficient executive functioning systems, have higher literacy functioning, and have stronger attention and representational abilities.  In layman’s terms, the brains of people who speak more than one language work real good.  They work better, in fact, than my brain since I only speak one language.  Knowing more than one language forces the brain to operate in more complicated ways, thus challenging it to grow, change, and adapt.  The only arguable downside to multilingualism is that those who speak more than one language often have a smaller vocabulary in a single given language than their single-language counterparts, but the cognitive benefits far outweigh this, as the increased brain functioning can allow for greater vocabulary-learning capacity.

In essence, by pushing for an English-Only nation, we are dumbing ourselves down!  We should be doing the opposite!  We should be demanding that every one of our citizens speak more than one language!  We should be encouraging dual-immersion schools all over the country!  We should be asking our Spanish-speaking neighbors to teach us their language!  After all, proponents of English-Only legislation say that they want people to learn another language by taking, say, a Spanish class or Japanese class in school.  Research (and the high school language class experience of just about everyone I know) shows, though, that this is an incredibly counter-intuitive and inefficient way to learn a language.  If we want our populace to be bilingual, they need to learn through immersion!  Undoubtedly this would be a tough transition for those of us adults who speak only English, but good!  We should be challenged!  Not only would it be good for us cognitively, but it is good for us to be outside of our comfort zone.  Those of us with American, white privilege have incredibly large comfort zones.  We rarely have to spend time in spaces that challenge us and our identity!

It’s time for us to change what it means when people say “Speak American.”  Rather than a bigoted call for people to speak white, let’s change our cultural reality so that “Speak American” implies that someone speaks multiple languages, enhancing our cultural landscape and furthering their own cognitive functioning in the process.


21 thoughts on ““Speak American” – Multilingualism and the English-Only Movement

  1. I think we frquently misjudge people when we hear them say “Learn to speak English” This really is not a racial statement. The only way to climb up the ladder of success & get out of menial jobs is to learn to speak English. Our ancestors (mine were Belgium & Irish) were also discriminated against & insisted that their children become “Americans” by learning the language. When the boat people came from Cuba & Vietnam, their biggest priority was to have their children speak English & be Americans. America is a land of immigrants & always will be but admit it we “speak English”

    • Unfortunately, as I stated above, because of the history of cultural genocide associated with the English-Only mentality, “Learn to speak English” cannot be much but a “racial statement.” You are right that English ability is tied to economic success in this country, but I am arguing that this is an antiquated and silly approach to linguistics in our ever-changing and globalizing economy. We need to move to a system where your ability to “climb the ladder of success” is directly tied to your multilingual abilities. Additionally, just because your ancestors (the Dutch and Irish – notably the Irish already had some level of language privilege as they spoke some level of English, though a different dialect for sure) were discriminated against is not evidence that we should continue that pattern and discriminate against others who don’t speak English fluently. Instead, as I said at the end of the post, we should be asking our Spanish-speaking neighbors to teach us the language. It would not only benefit us cognitively, but it would benefit our cultural landscape and our economic prospects in our globalizing economy as well!

  2. Jamie, do you know the book “‘They Take Our Jobs!’ and 20 Other Myths About Immigration”? I wrote a review at http://ecword.org/index.php/2010/10/a_e/books-address-immigration-and-racism/

  3. cathleen savery

    what an eye-opening post! it has encouraged me to reconsider what “speak american” should mean; perhaps a plan to incorporate “other language” learning as part of our elementary education. (i deliberately chose the term “other language” since it seems that “foreign language” supports cultural bigotry.)
    as a seven-yeart old, my parents engaged a tutor to teach me spanish so i could speak with some of our neighbors (this back-fired since i was too shy to speak to non-family members, especially adults). in high school, i studied latin and french. as an adult, i lived in england ,where i was exposed to “british english” idioms, and in brasil, where i was tutored so i could communicate with neighbors and new friends. while i am proficient only in english, i relish my exposure to other languages and cultures as part of our global family.
    your post will enable me to correct how i think about the term “english only”, and encourage my support for multi-language education.

  4. You refer only to white people as English speaking. Black people speak English as well. You sound like you have issues with white people. In fact, I know more white people who have taken the time to attempt to learn spanish than I do black people. And I do not think that just because someone feels people should speak English, they are racist. If we are all going to come together as one and unite as Americans, wouldn’t it be easier if we understood each other and could actually develop a friendship. Isn’t discouraging people from learning the language creating segregation? Kids can’t play with their neighborhood kids because they don’t speak the same language. So this causes people to create a community for their own kind. THAT alone causes segregation. They end up shopping at stores that cater to their kind….also segregation. When my grandparents came here from Italy, they learned the language. I’m glad they did and I’m glad I speak English. It seems that it would be a lot easier to have those who come here learn ONE language than all Americans attempting to learn ALL languages and printing forms in all languages and hiring employees to accomodate all languages, providing an education for all languages, etc.

  5. I also think we are hurting people by not encouraging them to learn English. If a little boy comes here at the age of 10, why wouldn’t you want his parents to teach him English so he has the best possible chance to acheive the American dream? I don’t know any attorneys, doctors or CEOs of large companies who made it without knowing English. I don’t think Microsoft is going to hire a top exec. in America (for example) who can’t speak English. So…in reality…while you may come across like the nicer guy, you are actually holding these people back and keeping them down.

  6. Thank you so much for your response.

    First, ER, let me be clear. I never once in my blog said that those who come to this country as immigrants should not learn English. Instead, I am making the point that the English-Only mentality shared by so many in this country is detrimental to our growth as a nation and that the “Speak English or Get Out” mentality is a damaging one and one that is not supported by the constitution or federal law.

    Now, you make the point that white people are not the only ones who speak English, and you are correct in that statement, but English is a white language, one that comes from the white people of England. The only reason that black people in the U.S. speak English is, as described in the blog, because of a forced process of cultural genocide that was an inherent part of the slave tradition. Thus, I do not take issue with black, English-speaking Americans in the same way that I do with white, English-speaking folks, particularly as the “Speak English or Get Out” movement is one largely pushed by white people. Further, despite your comments, many of those same “English Only” activists take issue with the way that black people often (though not exclusively) speak English, calling black English a ‘bastardized” version of the language, reinforcing the idea that only traditional white dialect is acceptable.

    The studies I have presented show that, in fact, those who come to the United States as immigrants want to and do, in the large majority, speak English because the recognize that it is the path to economic success in the current U.S. economy. However, the idea that those who are born here and speak English only is reprehensible and actively damaging to the United States as it hopes to remain economically competitive in the 21st century. We wonder why we lag behind other countries in reading and writing, yet it is clearly shown through research that the ability to speak multiple languages cognitively benefits a population. Thus, among other reasons, that fact that we are unilingual is hindering our ability to compete with the world. Further, we seem to refuse to recognize that we are no longer the sole dominant economic power in the world, and our inability to speak the languages in which economies are emerging is only furthering our economic decline.

    Finally, you’re right. Microsoft is not going to hire an executive in America who does not speak English. However, they are more likely to hire an executive who speaks multiple languages, which is why many of the top executive positions in the U.S. are increasingly going to foreign executives who speak multiple languages, particularly languages spoken in emerging markets like India, China, Brazil, or Mexico.

  7. […] in 2011 addressed the issue of immigration and the English-Only movement in the U.S..  “Speak American” – Multilingualism and the English-Only Movement looked at the ways that English-Only as a mindset and policy is not only unconstitutional but […]

  8. Welcome to America. Now Speak Cherokee.
    No one asked any of the immigrants to come here and commit the biggest holocaust in history against my ancestors. They are still coming and forcing their languages and rules and messed up cultures on us. We don’t have the US government everything printed out in Tsalagi, or language, and the other tribes don’t make the US government print everything out in the hundreds of other languages. When you come to Cherokee nation many things are printed, signs, etc in English and Tsalagi, to keep the language alive. If we went to another tribe, we had to learn to communicate with them in their language. When you go to Mexico, they don’t put hardly anything in English. Americans have to learn to communicate with THEM.

    That is because the language of commerce has become Spanish there. That in itself was because of the genocide against indigenous people SOUTH of the border who now are so far removed and ashamed of their true heritage in general that they don’t honor their ancestral traditions the way we have held on to them in our tribes here even though they were killed for it. They were forced to submit to becoming catholic, and ironically most Latinos who are in America are Mexican or descended from Mexicans/Aztecs, etc, and all these native tribes are from SOUTH OF THE BORDER, not native people from the country now called America. Our lands in the Southwest were never legally Spain, so to say America stole it or aquired it from Spain is also a myth that has been perpetuated by interests who have an agenda in claiming some legitimacy as fake “heirs” to our Apache, Pueblo, etc lands. The Pueblos ran the Spaniards out, and the Apaches fought off the MExicans who murdered their people, and they fought the Americans. All of them were and are illegal aliens invading and causing nothing but trouble to our people. There are some Mexicans who migrated during this era whose descendants remain and are Americans now. One tribe in Arizona who came up has been given “federally recognized” status as a “Native American” tribe as defined by the laws for tribes within the U.S. The blood of people now invading illegally from south of the border, the same as the whites invaded illegally our lands, is shown by the DNA Project to be from their ancestors whose homelands are in what is now called Mexico. There homeland was never the lands of the Southwest. They did migrate through on trade routes, as we go to Mexico and back, while our homeland is here.

    Mexicans are a mixture of an average of 36% (again, varies, but that is appx the DNA Project estimate) WHITE Spaniard bloodThere is no reason to print everything out in Spanish since it is 3% only of the population (varies by source) who can’t speak English who speak only Spanish. And appx 1 out of 3 “Latinos” are here illegally (also varies by source), so why the US government who does not print out things in Dine in Navajo Nation but they print things in Spanish to accomodate illegal aliens and immigrants/peolpe who haven’t learned English, when we all have to learn to read English to get a drivers license so we don’t run through a stop sign, is the question. English has been used as a tool for discrimination and genocide against us and blacks and immigrants, that is true. Blacks were forced to come here. No one is forcing illegal aliens to come here from any country. I would rather Mexicon print their signs in English which I have learned as my ancestors did to accomodate me, and also in their native languages, but since most of their people now speak the language of the conquistadors, they expect people coming there to learn it. The same way Americans expect people coming from other places to learn English, the same way France expects people to learn to communicate in French. That is not racism, it is the dominant language now.

    Before the white man invaded, we were 500 nations all speaking different languages. If someone wants to use natives to make their point, they need to represent the truth about the history of our land and give us credit for being more than just a clever little byline like “We are all immigrants here except native Americans.” That trivializes the issue by justifying massive, uncontrolled illegal immigration; as if because America has historically disregarded our nations, laws, treaties, and lands and walked right in here and reproduced and stolen it, replacing our cultures of stability and connection to our homeland with a reckless parade of arrogant, colonialist foreigners, that pattern should continue in spite of the havoc it is causing. Massive migration of people who will not adapt to our culture, but overrun it in their attempt to exploit our lands instead of learning to function and survive in their own has always been devastating for our people; now what goes around is coming around. The Lakota and the Apaches and the Mexicans are brothers, just like the deer and the wolf, but each has their territory and there is a fight when one overruns another’s. That is the simple laws that Americans forgot a long time ago, and now they cannot decide whether to defend the land they stole or welcome the pilgrims in like we did out of our kindness. The white man doesn’t learn from past mistakes very fast. LOL…Ask a native, if we could do it over, would you print a big WELCOME sign in English for the pilgrims?

  9. Sorry there were typos. It’s not because I don’t read English. I learned it very well to function in this country. It’s because it was hard for the computer to go back in and correct them. And don’t assume I am a man. That’s sexism, a whole other problem the white man brought here and the Mexicans are also bringing here because of their unfortunate loyalty to the catholic church, which causes more problems for all of us by indoctrinating them to have too many children they can’t support in Mexico and to disrespect women. It is the same problem other immigrants and illegal aliens and Americans have as well, they bring a culture here that is misogynistic toward women and mother earth, because of their politics and religions. Rape and violence toward women or children was unheard of in our culture before the white man came. Instead of learning from us and adapting, they overran and destroyed our nations with disease and disregard for life. Americans are foolish if they think that these problems are not increasing the more uncontrolled immigration is. We tried to fight against it when we saw it was destructive, and had it not been for disease decimating our populations and the imperialistic genocidal policies against us along with our inability to fathom total deceipt and treachery in negotiations, we would have had a different outcome. I sometimes wish Americans would learn from this and quit making the mistake of being deceived into becoming slaves and being overrun, and I sometimes wish this whole system and they will destroy themselves as it looks like it is doing so we can get rid of people who don’t respect the real rightful stewards of this land, and the right way is restored again. That’s not going to happen by letting everyone walk in here just because you want more slaves to pick vegetables you are too lazy to grow yourselves. It’s going to happen by people learning to be self sustaining in harmony with the balance of nature like our ancestors did instead of being dependent on a colonialist system.

  10. At 12, just learning the words is peerfct to get a head start for high school What I would do, is buy a couple dictionaries and keep them around.- A pocket-dictionary to keep around to look up words you may think of- Another to keep by your bed, or on your desk, to look up if you think of somethingAnother thing to do is cut pieces of paper and write Spanish words on them of things around the house. Then, go and tape them on the object it is representing in english.For example: Write la cama on a piece of paper and tape it to your bed.Do this to furniture, kitchen supplies and utensils, appliances, clothes, and other common household items.Doing this will help you remember the Spanish term after looking at it. Remember to try to repeat it and remember it as well as you can.Get your parents to help you and have them aid you and try to get you to remember the names of things. With this method, and having the dictionaries around, you will soon enough be able to think of the Spanish word for things easier.If you find this too easy, start to do this with verbs. For example: write correr or caminar by your shoes, or Baf1arse by the bathtub. Good luck!

  11. […] enrichment and tutoring programs, you can offer more courses in foreign languages or art and music (learning which stimulate brain activity), you can offer more access to technology, and so on.  The benefits are almost endless.  On the […]

  12. “If we want our populace to be bilingual, they need to learn through immersion!”

    Yep! Actually, that’s the way pretty much all education should go. It’s gonna take a while, for sure. Especially because of all the adults who only speak English. They were raised in a culture where English was their whole world! Can you blame them for wanting all those non-English speakers to buck up and learn English? If everyone becomes multilingual, there should be enough overlap so that we can all understand each other just fine.

    I think the most important thing is making sure that each language’s culture is taught and appreciated alongside the language itself. Otherwise American language really would be a melting pot. I don’t like our current “melting pot” analogy. America should be more like a pizza. Don’t let the cultures all melt together into a gloopy mess; let them be distinct and stand out from one another, while at the same time letting their flavors mix and play off of each other to form something much bigger and better than any one of the individual ingredients.

  13. I think it makes more sense to learn one language and learn it WELL. We are talking about keeping the USA on it’s feet by it’s citizens being on the same page. Divided we shall fall. I understand what you are trying to convey but I think it’s naive.

    • Why does a multi-lingual populace have to mean a divided populace? What I find naive is the idea that we should all be on the same page. The healthiest functioning democracies celebrate and work within diversity.

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  15. […] enrichment and tutoring programs, you can offer more courses in foreign languages or art and music (learning which stimulate brain activity), you can offer more access to technology, and so on. The benefits are almost endless. On the other […]

  16. […] In recent decades, allowing any room for Spanish – for instance, providing Spanish translation on various official documents – seems to stick in the craw of plenty of English speakers. […]

  17. […] In recent decades, allowing any room for Spanish – for instance, providing Spanish translation on various official documents – seems to stick in the craw of plenty of English speakers. […]

  18. […] phrase is actually French, meaning “card game”. The United States also has no official language.  It was quite intentionally left out of the constitutional process by the founders.  In fact, those […]

  19. […] sows white resentment. It’s the kind of people who resent seeing Mexican-Americans or hearing Spanish in […]

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