“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.
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.?
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.