March 9, 2018

“English Only”? I thought this was America!


La verdad. Via Flickr.

Given the range of xenophobic, anti-immigration policies implemented or proposed by the Trump Administration, it’s been surprising to see that federal legislation to make English the official language of the United States hadn’t popped up sooner.

After all, Trump asserted on the campaign trail that immigrants should speak English in order to assimilate. His proposed immigration policy, announced last summer, emphasized people with English skills. But no efforts to promote English inside the country were apparent.

Perhaps such moves were slow to arrive because Trump’s current wife, Melania Trump, is an immigrant who speaks more than one language (though just how many—and how well—are matters of contention), or because his granddaughter speaks Mandarin as well as English. Perhaps it’s because his first wife, Ivana, was originally from the Czech Republic, is said to speak five languages (which she taught to Donald Jr. but not to Ivanka or Eric).

Perhaps such moves haven’t been made because people who fund promoters of white ethnonationalism aren’t necessarily enthusiastic monolinguals. Robert Mercer, for instance, who funds, was once a computer scientist at IBM, where he was a machine translation pioneer.

Of course, just because a person is multilingual doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily have the wokest attitudes about language. But there was always the glimmer of a possibility that that those who have lived in this country with more than one language would be sensitive about the value of access to interpreters in healthcare, legal, and other contexts, or for that matter about not further embedding monolingualism in American society via federal-level official English laws.

But it looks like making English the law of the land is, in fact, on the table. At the end of January, officials from an outfit called ProEnglish went to the White House to meet with a “senior legislative aide” (who was probably Stephen Miller, DailyKos staff writer Gabe Ortiz speculates). ProEnglish’s website states that its mission is to “work through the courts and in the court of public opinion to defend English’s historic role as America’s common, unifying language, and to persuade lawmakers to adopt English as the official language at all levels of government.”

ProEnglish has numerous xenophobic linguistic goals, including getting Trump to repeal something called Executive Order 13166, “Improving Access to Services for People with Limited English Proficiency,” which was issued by Bill Clinton in the last year of his presidency. This executive order directed federal agencies to look at the services they provide through the lens of limited English proficiency and see how they can improve access to those services by people who don’t speak English well.

ProEnglish acts as if EO 13166 is a woeful budget burden, a violation of states’ rights, and an unfunded mandate. But consider that two of the agencies with the most significant contact with LEP people are the Small Business Administration and the IRS. Isn’t making sure that everyone can start a business and pay their taxes a good thing in America?

A third agency that LEP people need access to is FEMA, which as of 2010 had not fully met its requirements under EO 13166. One wonders how well it performed language-wise in Houston (where 145 languages are spoken, making it the third-most linguistically diverse city in the US) and Puerto Rico.

In the view of organizations like ProEnglish, the only reason to provide services in languages other than English is to enable non-citizens to invoke rights and access services they don’t deserve. But there are many legitimate reasons why immigrants to the US might not speak or read English well enough to read a ballot or understand a judge. They may not have access to English classes because enrollments are full, courses don’t exist, or the schedules don’t fit with their jobs. And if they’ve immigrated as adults, they don’t have the brain plasticity of their youth. They may also be recent arrivals who simply haven’t yet had time to master the language.

In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the need for a language beat. Here’s a story that editors should assign now: interview people whose lives are improved because they had language access under EO 13166 — it’s probably going away.



Michael Erard is writer in residence at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands and is author of Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press, 2012).