English-Only Laws: Why?

Domenico Maceri

Twenty-eight American states have declared English their official language. The last one was West Virginia which did so when the state legislature added the change in a flurry of other bills. House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores was disappointed because the bill was “snuck “ in andsome legislators were not even aware of it.

Amores should not be concerned about the effect of the new English-only law. No change has occurred in the other states that have added the provision.

Language laws in the US have been adopted primarily as a response to rising immigration. The goal is to maintain the US as an English-speaking country.

A closely related phenomenon to English-only laws have been the voter-driven initiatives which have virtually eliminated bilingual education and imposed English-only instruction in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts. Both English-only laws and the anti-bilingual education movement aim to force immigrants to learn English and not expect services in foreign languages.

English-only laws are unnecessary because immigrants know extremely well the importance and power of the English language. English is the key to becoming doctors, engineers, lawyers, or college professors. Immigrants flock to English as a Second Language classes because they are keenly aware that this new skill will enable them to leave menial work behind them and become part of the American social and political system.

Although English-only laws have virtually no practical impact, they create some damage at the symbolic level. They represent a slap in face to Native Americans who have lost their land to European immigrants and whose languages are fast dying.

English-only laws are also a slap in the face to immigrants since they devalue the languages brought in by newcomers.

Aside from their symbolic meaning, English-only laws in the US have had some minor effects in the workplace, where Hispanics have sued their companies for forcing them to speak English on their break. Companies that adopted English-only laws in the workplace did it because of security or business reasons, yet in some cases they were instigated by linguistic prejudice.

Legislating what language people must use is futile. The Irish, who see themselves as having been colonized and oppressed by the English for eight centuries, have two official languages—English and Gaelic. Yet, although 30% of the Irish population claims to know Gaelic, the language of “patriots,” its use is limited. English, the language of “traitors and informants,” dominates. The Irish would have loved to rid themselves of the English language, the last vestige of English imperialism and oppression. They did not do so because it’s a very practical and powerful language that helps the country’s economy. In essence, the Irish bowed to the power and practicality of the English language.

A number of other countries have also bowed to the power of the English language around the globe including some former British colonies. Indeed

English is a national or a very important language in about fifty countries around the world. It is also spoken as a second language by significant numbers of people. English has become the international language and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

The power of the English language in the US is so strong that laws defending it amount to nothing more than trying to kill a dead horse. In a broad sense English-only laws reflect xenophobic attitudes and narrow-mindedness about global affairs, which require linguistic skills that go far beyond English only.

Everyone would agree that the English language is an indispensable tool in the US and abroad. However, while knowing English will get you far, a second language will get you further still. More than 53% of Europeans know at least two languages compared to 9% of Americans. Rather than declaring English the official language, how about laws to encourage Americans to learn a second language?

Domenico Maceri (dmaceri@gmail.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers and some have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.