By Deborah WhitfordJanuary 9, 2008
Language is a difficult subject to discuss dispassionately because it's our essence. So when two languages come cheek to jowl, as English and Spanish have in the United States, it becomes a hot issue. As Chicano poet Gloria Anzaldua wrote in Borderlands: La Frontera: "So, if you really want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. I am my language."
Linguistic terrorism has plagued children of immigrants and Native Americans for generations. Alberto Alvaro Ríos wrote in his book Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir: "If speaking Spanish is bad, and our parents speak Spanish, then they must be bad," he concluded, "and we became ashamed of them."
Fueling the language debate are clashes arising over illegal immigrants fleeing dire circumstances. But anti-foreign-language fervor has been around for a long time. We disrespected the languages of Native Americans and African-Americans because non-white minorities spoke them, and we shunned German during World War I. Now it's Spanish.
The irony is that almost all of us have ancestors who were immigrants. The co-mingling of languages is as much a part of that brew as the people who speak them. Yet we have become so smug about English that we ignore the prominence of foreign words in our vocabularies.
French: casserole, cassette and clientele. Latin: acumen, genius, moratorium. Greek: thesis, barometer, autistic. German: angst, kindergarten, sauerkraut. Turkish: macramé, bridge, caviar. Italian: pizza, ghetto, ballerina. Japanese: banzai, sushi. Afrikaner: trek. Hungarian: coach, paprika.
As for Spanish, it left its mark upon our culture long before the arrival of Cristóbal Colón. Just close your eyes and press your finger onto any U.S. map, and chances are decent that you'll be pointing to a place with a Spanish name (such as Colorado, Montana or Florida).
Yet we view foreign languages with suspicion and derision - the billboards in Spanish, the mom-and-pop piñata shops, the Little Mexicos. We've got them in our sights. Our weapon? Legislation.
Thirty states, from Arkansas to Wyoming, have enacted laws making English their official language.
This is not a bad thing as long as the sole purpose is to enable the government to run smoothly, unencumbered by language barriers. But it's one thing to specify English as the official language and quite another to issue "English only" mandates that order all government employees to refrain from offering assistance in other languages. Heaven forbid a Navajo legislator should speak to his Navajo constituents in Navajo, or a bilingual welfare worker speak Spanish, or a state park ranger give visitors directions in French or German.
Yet 23 states have adopted measures restricting the public use of minority languages. During last year's regular session of the General Assembly in Maryland, laws that would have required all government business statewide and in Baltimore County to be conducted in English were defeated.
An English-only mandate not only hampers effective communication but, according to the written opinion of the Arizona Supreme Court, it also "chills First Amendment rights."Stephen Montoya, the lawyer who represented legislators and state employees in Arizona seeking to overturn one such law, called it racist. "The only individuals in Arizona who don't speak English fluently, or not at all, are people of color," he said. "I see this as a way to keep them out of the political process."
To legislate against Spanish is to marginalize the largest minority group in this country. The United States contains the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, estimated at about 32 million. Spanish is the third-most-spoken language on the planet, with 400 million to 480 million speakers.
As for the assertions that these "foreigners" don't want to learn English, considering the waiting list of immigrants clamoring for classes, that can't be true.
Moreover, learning a foreign language takes time. Please, let's give them a chance.
Language is a beautiful resource, a bridge to other cultures and new ways of thinking. It's also constantly in flux; a language that doesn't change dies.
If we stymie the process, the best we can hope for might be the unearthing of American English by future archeologists studying a dead culture.
Deborah Whitford is a writer, a student of Spanish and a courtroom clerk in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix. Her e-mail is email@example.com.