Friday, February 08, 2008

English Only (this one's for you, Tom L)

Two weeks ago, in response to my January 19th post, one reader commented:

Tell me more about ‘English Only bull#$%.’ What does that refer to? Does Mexico publish its voter materials in other languages for the benefit of non-Mexican-speakers?

English Only is a movement that attempts to stop the use of any language other than English in official U.S. communications. An advocate group for English Only, called U.S. English, states:

…the passage of English as the official language will help to expand opportunities for immigrants to learn and speak English, the single greatest empowering tool that immigrants must have to succeed.

Passing legislation that establishes English as the official language of the United States is ridiculous (of course English is our main language – duh!) and prejudiced against the millions of Americans who speak many other languages. People who advocate for English Only use the rhetoric of national unity and patriotism to thinly veil their prejudice against immigrants and their fear that immigrants threaten American culture.

To address the question about Mexico publishing its voter materials in other languages for the benefit of non-Spanish speakers, no, it does not, but then there isn’t an influx of American immigrants crossing the Mexican border, trying to establish permanent residency and become voting Mexican citizens. Nevertheless, many countries accept English as their second language and strive to learn it. In China children must start learning English in grammar school. All over the world, including in Mexico, literature is published and signs are translated into English. Businesses make sure they have English-speaking staff for their foreign customers.

Meanwhile, back in my native country, Spanish is arguably the second most often spoken language in the U.S., but many Americans remain afraid of this reality. Why are we so afraid to admit the huge presence of Spanish in our culture when other countries aren’t afraid of English?

Back to the specific question about voter materials being translated into a non-dominant language: why shouldn’t American voter materials be published in Spanish (besides xenophobia)? People who request voter information in Spanish are American citizens with a special need. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act required public buildings to have accommodations for Americans with special physical needs, which resulted in adjustments to building entrances, sidewalks, public transportation and work environments. We are actually one of few countries that provides such accommodations. If there are other countries with legislation similar to the American Disabilities Act, it hasn’t been enforced to the extent that it has been here. But just because other countries don’t accommodate its special needs citizens doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Likewise, if Mexico doesn’t provide bilingual ballots that doesn’t mean we should act similarly. Bilingual ballots were created by Americans to assist Americans. I’m proud to live in a country that tries to accommodate everyone, including those who need a little extra help.

Supporters of English Only believe that if we translate nothing into any other language that “will help to expand opportunities for immigrants to learn and speak English.” This sentiment suggests that immigrants are in need of motivation to learn English. In fact, Latino immigrants to the U.S. are extremely motivated to learn English. They come here for economic opportunities and everyone knows that the more English you speak, the better the job you can get. Why would anyone think that Latino immigrants do not know that the quicker they learn English, the quicker they will make better money?

Immigrants don’t need any more motivation to learn English. What they need is English classes they can attend regularly and the time to study. Lack of English instruction and lack of time (often from working more than one job in a day) is what keeps many immigrants from learning English.

When I hear someone ask a question similar to the one that started this post, I am reminded of the incredible fear of many Americans that Latino immigrants are taking over American culture, which I think is actually fear that all Latinos – American-born included – are taking over this culture. What culture are such fearful people are trying to protect? Even mainstream, dominant American culture is extremely fluid, adopting pieces of different languages and dialects, cuisines, music, behaviors, fashion, etc. What isn’t American culture willing to sample, blend, and re-create? Our willingness to welcome new ideas from other cultures might be the only way in which we are truly democratic.

Questioning the practice of translating government materials into Spanish shows a desire to exclude people, and that disappoints me. What does it cost us to translate English into Spanish? Whatever amount it is, it’s not nearly as great as the cost of excluding Latino immigrants when they are part of the lifeblood of the U.S. and, in an increasing number of cities, the only source of economic and population renewal.

But we can argue all day about this and it won’t really make a difference because, in reality, information gets translated when there is a need and when the group with the power to translate feels motivated to meet that need. Even if legislation passed restricting all official communication to English, we’d still have plenty of companies, such as McDonald’s and Budweiser, eager and willing to translate their advertising into Spanish. As long as there’s a financial reason to accommodate Spanish-dominant speakers, we will. With American companies financially motivated to advertise in Spanish and immigrants financially motivated to learn English, I’m sure we can reach common ground, can’t we?

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