DMI Blog

Andrew Friedman

Watch your language!

Last Thursday, during the Senate's frenzied debates and votes on amendments to immigration legislation, the Senate voted 63-34 in favor of an amendment, offerred by Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, to make English the "national" language of the United States.

What's the big deal, you might ask. English is already the dominant language throughout the United States. Immigrants are flooding English as a second language classes at churches and community organizations throughout the country. The amendment, though, could have disasterous consequences for millions of people. The amendment states that no one has the right to demand that government services be provided in any language other than English. This provision not only opens the door to discrimination, it is bad for all Americans.

Let's play out a few scenarios:

There is a domestic dipute that turns violent. A Spanish-speaking, Puerto Rican, U.S. Citizen hears her U.S. Citizen neighbor being brutally beaten by her husband. She calls the police, but they don't speak any Spanish. In this scenario, who benefits from an English-only government?

Let's say the neighbor was not being brutally beaten, but rather was out at the store and her thirteen-year-old daughter had a severe asthma attack in the building hallway. Again, the helpful neighbor would be unable to help. It hardly sounds like a triumph for anyone. Let's imagine the case of an immigrant parent whose citizen child might have a contagious disease who is unable to inform or seek advice from school officials. Who would suffer as a result?

The potential scenarios are endless, and the potential harm incalculable. English-only policies only serve to make our government less effective - for everyone.

Behind the Senators misguided posturing, though, there is a serious public policy challenge. How can we help people learn English? Learning English expands opportunity and facilitates effective communication.

But hey, this isn't rocket science, here. Let's start with the obvious. If Senators want people to learn English, they need not take a punitive approach. They should start by ensuring that ESL classes are affordable and accessible to everyone who needs them. Then people could learn English, and nobody would be put in harm's way.

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Posted at 9:33 AM, May 22, 2006 in Language Access
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