One Nation, One Language?
Would making English the nation's official language unite the country or divide it?
But diversity carries the day. The U.S. Department of Education policy is not simply to promote learning of English but also to maintain immigrants' native tongues. And supporters of that policy make a good case for it. "People ask me if I'm embarrassed I speak Spanish," says Martha Quintanilla Hollowell, a Dallas County, Texas, district attorney. "I tell them I'd be more embarrassed if I spoke only one language."
Language skills. That may be what's most disturbing about the English-only sentiment: In a global economy, it's the monolingual English speakers who are falling behind. Along with computer skills, a neat appearance and a work ethic, Americans more and more are finding that a second language is useful in getting a good job. African-Americans in Dade County, now more than half Hispanic, routinely lose tourism positions to bilingual Cubans. Schoolteachers cry foul because bilingual teachers earn more money while monolingual teachers are laid off. "There is no way I could get a job in the Los Angeles public schools today," says Lucy Fortney, an elementary school teacher for 30 years.
The proliferation of state and local English-only laws has led to a flurry of language-discrimination lawsuits and a record number of complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ed Chen, a lawyer with the San Francisco office of the American Civil Liberties Union, says clients have been denied credit and insurance because they don't speak English. But courts increasingly have endorsed laws that call for exclusive use of English on the job. Officials at New York's Bellevue Hospital, where the vast majority of nurses are Filipino, say an English-only law was necessary because nurses spoke Tagalog among themselves.
Other employers have wielded English-only laws as a license to discriminate, giving rise to fears that a national law would encourage more of the same. A judge in Amarillo, Texas, claimed a mother in a custody case was committing "child abuse" by speaking Spanish to her child at home. Another Texas judge denied probation to a drunk driver because he couldn't benefit from the all-English Alcoholics Anonymous program. In Monterey Park, Calif., a citizens' group tried to ban Chinese signs on businesses that served an almost all-Asian clientele. In Dade County, a since-repealed English-only law was so strict that it forbade using public funds to pay for court translations and bilingual signs to warn metrorail riders against electrocution.
Though it is not intended as such, the English-first movement is a reminder of a history of prejudice toward speakers of foreign tongues. Many American Indians were prohibited from speaking their own languages. The Louisiana Legislature banned the use of Cajun French in public schools in 1912, but instead of abandoning their culture, many Cajuns dropped out of school and never learned English. French was finally allowed back in the schools in the 1960s. As recently as 1971, it was illegal to speak Spanish in a public school building in Texas, and until 1923 it was against the law to teach foreign languages to elementary school pupils in Nebraska. At Ellis Island, psychologists tested thousands of non-English-speaking immigrants exclusively in English and pronounced them retarded.