Sunday, September 10, 2006

English Only?

A few years ago there was a lot of noise about making English the official language of the US, and enforcing all sorts of "English-only" rules. With the revival of the immigration debate recently (topic for a separate posting), this topic has come up again.

The folks who advocate English -only seem to come to this conclusion from a few key driving factors:
  • The ability to communicate is pretty darned essential, and communication can only happen when people speak the same language. (See: Tower of Babel). English is the dominant language in the US, so it makes sense for that to be our common language.
  • The desire for immigrants to assimilate, as all previous immigrant groups have done. This is largely targeted, as far as I can tell, at Spanish speaking migrants, although not exclusively so.
  • The desire to simplify and lower the cost of administering services to immigrants (e.g., why do we need to do ballots in N different languages instead of just one? Spend so much money on translators for jails? Spanish-only education for kids that can't speak English? Etc.)
  • For economic advancement, English is pretty vital. (Translation into English: we don't want a lot of non-English speakers on our welfare roles).
  • I think there is also a subset of English-only advocates who also do not want low-education/poor immigrants in the country, and perhaps an even smaller subset who are racist/xenophobic. While I think the reasons above for supporting English-only are broadly adopted by English-only advocates, I am not willing to paint all English-only advocates with this particular motivation; I just list it for completeness. Since this is also not a valid reason for supporting English Only, I'm going to simply declare it irrelevant to any rational discussion of whether English Only rules/laws make sense.
I think all but the last reason above are perfectly legitimate concerns, and I think that for these reasons there is no excuse for anybody that wishes to move to the US not to learn as much English as possible. Sure there are some 80-year old refugees or similar who are here for whom becoming fluent in English is just not likely to happen, but I don't buy the argument that anyone is incapable of learning at least a little English.

We already have English competency as a requirement for citizenship; I think that makes a ton of sense. Heck, I'd go further than this and suggest that it is reasonable to require some degree of English proficiency (or at least mandatory classes) for anybody wishing to visit the US on more than a tourist visa (i.e., green card holders, work visas, etc.); there's nothing constitutionally that I'm aware of that prohibits the US government from imposing whatever restrictions it wants on visitors or prospective citizens. I think beefing up these requirements for entry and competency requirements for continued residency (with allowances made for age, handicap, etc.) is a perfectly reasonable approach towards ensuring that we meet the goals above as much as possible.

I'm no lawyer, but any reading of the constitution that I can tell suggests that if you want to make English a requirement, you need an amendment to do so. There are no language requirements for citizens to vote or to otherwise exercise their rights as citizens, and if the 1st amendment says you can say anything, then it seems to me that by definition you can say anything in any language you want.

So if that's the case, then does an English-only amendment make sense? I don't think it does. In fact, I think that making English the official language or creating an English-only amendment to the constitution would have a number of severe problems and would do little to solve the problems above.

In particular:
  • Once you make English an official language, you need to define it. Once you decide you need to define a language, you quickly go down the slippery slope that our friends in France and Paris (and Iran and other places) have found themselves, with large and intrusive government bureaucracies deciding what is and what isn't part of the language, what sizes of typeface may be employed on signs, etc. (In my opinion, the creation of such bureaucracies is the first sign that your language is dying and can't survive on its own.) One of English's great strengths is that it is dynamic, evolving, and accepts new words/phrases. In the face of English-only rules, these words/phrases would likely not be acceptible if they came from other languages. If you allow them by default, then the English-only rule becomes meaningless. If you don't allow them by default, then you stifle the language.
  • If you declare that English is the official language, or the only language that can be used, then you need to be very clear about where that applies. If you apply it very narrowly - such as to, say, ballots - then it won't have a terribly big effect on solving the problems above. If you expand it more broadly, such as declaring that classes must be taught in English, then you run into a raft of issues about what is and isn't acceptible. E.g., does this mean that books containing foreign phrases aren't allowed in English classes? How can you reconcile English-only in the classroom with bilingual education for English-speakers trying to become fluent in a 2nd language?
  • Scope is also critical to define for the private sector. Would we have ADA-style rules that say that a business must always accomodate English speakers? If so, wouldn't that mean, for example, that a business in East L.A. that provides services for Hispanics, would be required to include English on their signs? (Or, for that matter, that Italian restaurants could no longer have Italian-only menus, as many do today?) And wouldn't those sorts of rules fly in the face of a first amendment freedom of speech?
  • There are a number of areas where things would certainly be easier if it were exclusively English, but as a practical matter we can't escape it. For example, if a tourist is here who doesn't speak English and is hit by a car, are we going to refuse to treat them because they can't converse in English? If they are accused of a crime, would we not provide a translator so that they could talk to their attorney? We're a civilized society with a strong bill of rights; I just don't see us denying these services even to people who perhaps should speak English but do not, or do not very well.
For the reasons listed at the top of this post, I believe English-only is a valid goal. However, I think that the solutions attempted via English-only rules or declarations are lousy ways to achieve this. I think the best way to achieve English-only is in fact the historically dominent mechanism: the economy. Every prior immigrant group has had enclaves of native-language speakers, but they have also all figured out that English is key to economic success. I do not believe that we should coddle non-English speakers such as with bi-lingual classes for non-English-speaking children; I believe that removes the incentives to assimilate and learn English. But we should not get super hung up on people speaking their native languages either. They or their kids will eventually speak English as their primary language.

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