A common language brings people together. Historically, learning English was a priority for German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Japanese immigrants (to name a few) because it helped them participate in the communities they joined. And because the United States is still predominantly an English-speaking country, that practice should continue today.
From Dear Abby, “Sharing Common Language Is Simply Common Sense,” Jan 23, 1997
Because the United States was at war with Germany, those of German heritage were the main target of suspicion. Soon German language instruction was banned in public schools. Then, parochial schools were forced to use only English in their classrooms. The churches were next, and eventually Iowa’s Governor Harding declared that only English was legal in public and private schools, public places and over the telephone.
From “It’s the Law—Speak English Only!”
We need to end the oft-repeated myth cited by “Dear Abby”, that our forefathers quickly, easily, and/or gladly “picked up” English. Their drive to learn English did not come because they saw a single language for this country as an obvious advantage. The rich and powerful spoke English in this country, and this fact worked in two ways. It motivated immigrants positively to cater to the rich in order to move up the social hierarchy, and negatively, in order not to be attacked, forcibly cut out, or humiliated by the most powerful people in the US.
This myth is equivalent to saying, “African-Americans understood that living together in close-knit communities benefited them as a people.” It helped them, but only because it was forced on them to avoid violence and humiliation.
Monolingualism—better described as English domination—did not develop naturally in the US. Not only did monolingualism never exist in this country, but violence drove every attempt at monolingualism. The great varieties of languages spoken in this country were forced out.
How was German purged? At the hands of mobs.
How was Ndongo extinguished? At the end of a slave-owner’s whip.
How was Lakota eliminated? By a boarding school teacher’s rod.
Sadly, so many monolingual English speakers continue to repeat the myth that “Dear Abby” intones above: “Our ancestors were happy to learn English so that they could participate in mainstream society,” or some variety of the same. While some may have taken on this task voluntarily, our society violently repressed languages besides English.
The situation today looks very similar to what we see in the past. We see that English-only bullies do not always need violence, as rules, punishment, and shame serve this function, as well. A very early post of mine featured the reprimand and sports suspension of a Native American girl for speaking Menominee at school.
More recently at a middle school outside Houston, the principal announced to the student body that Spanish was no longer allowed.
Random people may also accost you in public for speaking a language besides English. “We’re in America, you know!”
“We’re in America, you know!”
Ignorance of history fuels campaigns against other languages in the US. In Southern California recently a sign was posted: “During works hrs we the cafe have a English only rule for safety reasons.” This became policy in spite of the fact that the majority of cafeteria workers and 85% of students speak Spanish. How did this happen? Where did these cafeteria workers come from and why would they insist on Spanish rather than English?
Let me reverse the question: why would people insist on speaking English there? Why are so many people speaking English in California, at all? US military invasion led to occupation and ultimately to annexation of California. English was spoken because the US military took over after annexation grew to taking huge swaths of Mexican territory. Why do people insist on speaking Spanish? Because this area was filled with Spanish speakers before any English-speaking army invaded.
So we can see that English helped all of these people “participate in the communities they joined,” though they did not necessarily join these communities voluntarily (in the case of military invasion). Moreover, “speaking English” is not always the issue, but whether speaking another language will land someone in hot water.
What do we do now? Do we surrender to English only? How do you preserve a language in this atmosphere?