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English Only in the US

An on-and-off topic occasionally discussed among political pundits lately is the use of English as the official language in the United States.  By tradition – although not constitutionally mandated – English is indeed the official language in the U.S.

While there is nothing wrong in using English as a medium of communication, there is something wrong when the use or the maintenance of one’s language like Tagalog, Spanish or Russian, to mention a few, is not fully supported or encouraged by lawmakers or by the educational system..

Supporters of the English Only Movement consider English as a means of resolving conflict in a culturally diverse society, a tool for social mobility and economic advancement, and a means of unifying the country.

On the other hand, opponents find English Only a threat to civil rights, educational opportunities, free speech and an insult to the cultural heritage of non-English speaking immigrants.

This piece is not intended to provide a critique which side of the argument is more reasonable, and, therefore, correct.  I happen to think that there is a more profound ideological undercurrent that deserves attention: that is the issue of institutionalized racism hiding behind the cloak of phrases like “cultural assimilation” and “national unity.”

Many scholars agree that language is a powerful tool for controlling and dominating one’s thought.  Linguicism, which is similar in its workings and effects to racism and sexism, is an accepted phenomenon that causes bigotry and inequality.

The American government was guilty of linguicism when it imposed the use of English only on the Native Americans during the colonial period.  The Americans did the same thing to the Filipinos during the 1800s.  It was a master stroke designed to destroy the cultures of the Native Americans and the Filipinos.  The policy was shaped by the overriding objective of preserving American cultural and political identity, by consciously fostering certain attitudes that conformed to American ideals and philosophy.

Cultural assimilation is how the proponents of the English Only Movement would describe this practice.

What can be learned from this brief historical sketch is that the English Only Movement is not a new phenomenon that has become a hot topic only recently.  Rather, it has been a part of America’s colonial legacy, consolidated over the past 100 years and recently surfaced with renewed vigor under the pretext of promoting national unity.

Proponents argue the needfor Americans to have an accepted national standard of communication in business, education, law and politics.”

The above argument misses the point. No one is questioning the use English.  This is not the issue.  The issue is the implicit attack on the use of other languages other than English.

The implicit attack on the languages of immigrants is very clear from other leaders of the English Only Movement.  Robert Melby, former chair of the Florida English campaign, called for the elimination of the emergency 911 services way back in 1986 as an incentive for the Hispanics to learn English. When I first arrived in Seattle in the early 80s, a Filipina nurse was suspended from work at a hospital in Seattle for speaking in Tagalog with fellow Filipinas.

To immigrants, nothing is more humiliating and demeaning than for them and their children to be part of a society that institutionally tells them that personal worth is based on learning the dominant language of that society.  In other words, the proponents of the English Only Movement are telling the immigrants: If you want to be a part of our society, follow us. Speak English only. No questions asked. Or, go back to your country.

No way!