‘English Only’ bills promote divisiveness

In light of the current prevalence of English Only bills on Official English going through congress, I’ve been reading more about the controversy.  Part of the debate surrounding immigration in the US is the issue of making English THE ‘official language’.  While there is great value in a common language and English education being available more broadly than it is, as a TESOL professional, I maintain an English only policy would only have negative consequences for the country at large.  Here are a few reasons:

Single-Language policy promotes superiority of one group and creates a divisive atmosphere

Also known as linguistic imperialism, the use of one language to the exclusion of other languages has significant affects on the trust between majority-minority.  A good example of this is the Sinhala only Act in Sri Lanka.  When the newly independent Sinhalese government declared Sinhala the only official language, it forced most non-Sinhala speaking Tamils out of government work, effectively eliminating their power. In other countries, such as Turkey and Slovakia, minority language speakers are persecuted[1].

The US has a long history of multilingualism

Spanish actually predates English in the US, and the two languages have coexisted for over 400 years[2].  History of immigration shows that most of our ancestors arrived NOT speaking English.   The country began with fierce debates over the widespread use of German and has shifted to the current debates over the use of Spanish[3].  Our founding fathers determined to NOT declare an official language because of “a belief in tolerance for linguistic diversity within the population, the economic and social value of foreign language knowledge and citizenry, and a desire not to restrict the linguistic and cultural freedom of those living in the new country[4].”

English is not the ONLY language spoken in America.

Just because the majority speaks it does not mean that all speak it at the same level.  Immigrants currently make up 12.4% of America’s population[5].  To remove government documents, especially in Spanish (which is currently widely available), would be a slap in the face to Spanish speaking American citizens.  As the world continues to globalize, to establish a law which prohibits the use of other language only continues to make America less competitive globally.  Should we value it appropriately, multilingualism will be a benefit to our country, not a deficit as the English only advocates claim.

For further reading, James Crawford has an excellent FAQ about Official English that explores this issue in more depth.

Are there other important considerations you would add?  Further questions for consideration?

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