by Matthew Chase

Language allows us to communicate with each other, to cultivate a mutual understanding. Yet it has also been used in public discourse as a divisive tool among people. The English-only movement in the United States is a perfect example of how we have confronted the issue of language discrimination.

The English-only movement has experienced a resurgence in recent years as legislation has been pushed to make English the official language. Proponents argue that establishing a national language would promote assimilation into society, and grant access for immigrants to better jobs, better education, and better lives. The movement is certainly not a new one as California was the first of several states to pass measures prohibiting bilingual education in schools. Even as the movement claims to value teaching English, we have observed a simultaneous decline in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs as a result of budget cuts and downsizing. The aftermath has deprived countless students and their families of a voice to speak out against these injustices.

Although I can appreciate the value of the English language as a point of cultural pride and heritage in this country, we often fail to reflect on how English-only policies have historically stripped the cultures of others in U.S. history. We forget the brutal (re)education systems that had been established to enforce African enslavement, as well as the boarding schools where Native American children were severely punished for speaking their native languages. The undercurrents of racism are evident in the movement in both history and its current ties to anti-immigration activist groups.

Even now, the U.S. education system continues to neglect the needs of its students of our linguistically diverse country. A 2011 American Community Survey reported a rise in languages other than English among the national public with over 37 million people who speak Spanish, almost 3 million people who speak Chinese, and nearly 2 million who speak Tagalog. We cannot forget the students who speak indigenous languages, which remain continually at the threat of being lost forever, as well as the wealth of other languages we cherish as foundations of our own cultures.

The lack of a multilingual education  in the United States does not just hurt its multilingual citizens, but also its English-only-speaking populations. The United States lags behind in the Western world significantly when it comes to foreign language education. More than 20 European countries have established mandatory studies in at least 2 foreign languages, with most students learning their first foreign language by the age of 9 according to a Eurostat report. The United States education system does not have a national mandate for students learn a foreign language. The responsibility is instead left to individual states and school districts. The result leaves us with very low and inconsistent rates of schools even offering the opportunity to learn a second language.

It may lack the moniker, but even this lack of foreign language education promotes an English-only agenda. It is a gross failure to the U.S. public as we consider the world we’re living in now. Research shows a number of advantages to being multilingual including:

  • Stimulates intellectual growth
  • Enhances understanding of one’s own native language
  • Allows one to communicate with others better
  • Promotes better academic achievement
  • Increases job opportunities where knowing another language is a desirable qualification

I would argue that these benefits are not really advantages. They have become a means of survival: to be successful in an increasingly diverse nation and world. In a country where academic achievement, professional accomplishment, and the ability to communicate with others are vital to having any measure of success, then receiving a multilingual education is not just a privilege but a necessity.

We can no longer live isolated from other cultures, other languages, nor have we ever been able to. The United States proclaims itself a nation of immigrants, but it is also a nation of languages. Yet the reality suggests otherwise as English-only policies and anti-multilingualism legislation continue to exist. It is not a matter of doing away with the English language. The language in itself is not damaging. Perhaps more importantly, English represents diversity through its adoption and adaptation of other languages. Rather, the real problem is the ideology behind its enforcement as a tool to divide and silence us. The United States is not the only country in the world to establish monolingual policies and culture, but that does not excuse its denial of others’ cultures as meaningful education. The United States is at a unique position where English should be respected and appreciated just as much as any other language in our schools, our workplaces, and our homes.

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