DOES ANYONE doubt that the United States would be a stronger nation, better prepared to compete in a global economy, if every citizen had mastered the English language?
Of course not.
Can anyone deny that the United States would be a more perfect democracy if every citizen had full command of the language necessary for participation in public life?
Of course not.
Does it follow that the United States is well served by the English-only movement?
Of course not.
The English-only movement is a classic example of a solution in search of a problem.
English-only advocates depict themselves as rescuing an America torn apart by linguistic and cultural diversity. They lament America’s loss of unity.
Where is this America of which they sing? Where is the threat that so alarms them? Both are fictions. Both rest on a muddied ideology that identifies cultural variety with un-American activity.
English-only proponents remain devoted to legal sanctions – in fact to constitutional amendments – that would make English the official language of the United States. The proposed amendments could, among other things, deny non-English-speaking crime victims the right to a court interpreter, abolish non-English 911 emergency telephone assistance, and prohibit the federal government from printing health information in foreign languages.
For decades, America’s attitude toward foreign languages has been at best ambivalent, at worst phobic. But this attitude takes an economic toll. Linguistic isolationism burdens our ability to compete with countries that have long regarded multilingual competence as a badge of honor.
The National Governors’ Association has correctly asserted that the U.S. trade deficit derives largely from linguistic deficiency: “The language of trade is the language of the customer, but Americans are increasingly unable to communicate with their counterparts in other countries.”
Any political movement that blinds our citizens to the economic imperative to study foreign languages endangers both our prosperity and our security.
The English-only philosophy would have us deny that the destinies of nations are more tightly intertwined than at any time in history. This movement would have us retreat from the future.
The 13 states that have adopted English-only mandates have encouraged advocates of policies that would, if enacted, stymie academic achievement of foreign-speaking students. These policies – such as the elimination of bilingual education – would deprive students of time to experiment with the language they already know, to indulge in “linguistic play” that enhances the ability to master other languages.
In addition, we know that English-only mandates erode self-esteem and stigmatize innocent children. Worse, they retard the development of proficiency in English. An impressive body of research suggests that intensive instruction in a student’s native language facilitates mastery of English.
This research points to the deep irony at the root of the English-only movement: It is self-defeating. In the name of expanding the use of English, it aims to deny young people the educational approaches that have proved most successful in helping them learn English.
Today’s student with limited English proficiency could well become tomorrow’s multilingual citizen who enriches our culture and invigorates our economy. But English-only proponents seem to care more about the purity of the English language than the potential of our children.
Mary Hatwood Futrell is president of the National Education Association.