Be it matters of land in the past or language in the present, minority groups have always been pressured to conform to Western standards in order to survive. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were characterized by brutal acts against Native Americans at the hands of European colonists. Soon, norms settled in whereby the indigenous people were constantly reminded that their land was not theirs anymore.
The Europeans brought their cattle with them, and the resulting spread of diseases such as measles, influenza, and whooping cough wiped out large numbers of indigenous people. The message was clear — they had to adapt to the European standard of living or else there was no place for them in the Americas.
Today, we have simply swapped territorial colonization for linguistic colonization. The United States is plagued by the English-only movement, which seeks to establish English as the national language and mandate all schools in the country to teach solely in English and abandon their bilingual programs. The movement also hopes to prohibit the translation of legal documents and court trials into any language other than English.
In many ways, this imposes a modern racist standard upon immigrants, much like the one imposed upon indigenous groups in the past. This standard suggests that immigrants have to speak English and live a Western lifestyle, or else there is no place for them here.
Known for its acceptance of diversity and promises of liberty, the U.S. should be accepting of its immigrant population and the non-English languages of immigrant communities. Princeton’s foreign language requirement in many ways reflects these ideals, as it hopes to foster respect for the cultural presence of these ethnic groups in the United States and promote multi-racial intercommunication. The United States, home to 350 distinct languages, is a melting pot of different cultures – so how can we possibly choose just one?
This movement is particularly troubling to Hispanic immigrants, with Spanish being the most widely spoken language in the U.S. after English. Many children are born to parents who are first-generation immigrants that do not speak English, meaning that bilingual programs are largely beneficial in their transition to learning and speaking English alongside Spanish.
Yet, 31 states currently declare English as their official language. Arizona has even curtailed bilingual programs in public schooling despite having one of the largest Hispanic populations of any state in the U.S.
This means that immigrant children are required to begin total immersion in English despite never having been exposed to it at home upon the start of their education. This introduces further challenges to the lives of immigrants in the U.S. This problem extends to many other immigrant groups, whether they are Asian Americans, European Americans, or Arab Americans.
For other immigrants whose parents do speak English, the lack of an opportunity to practice their native language skills in an English-only schooling and social environment means that they lose touch with their heritage. Language brings with it a history of culture and tradition, with nuances in the way concepts are described being reflective of cultural phenomena.
Take, for instance, the existence of different terms for “uncle” in Hindi to denominate maternal uncles as “Mamu” and paternal uncles as “Chachu.” This is indicative of the collectivist nature of South Asian culture, with every member playing a specific normative role within the family dynamic. The lack of an ability to speak a native language thus inevitably leads to an inability to fully understand and identify with the nuances of your own culture.
Then, an English-only movement forces millions of immigrants to give up their origins in order to be American. But, doesn't being an American mean that you are part of one of the most diverse and accepting populations in the world?
Moreover, the move for convergence to a universal language is a major contributor to a phenomenon known as language death — thousands of niche languages are being wiped out as speakers are failing to pass the language on to their children, and the languages are hence dying with them. Given the strong linkages between language and culture, this results in the simultaneous death of many cultures.
Unfortunately, the loss extends even past culture to large fragments of history. A lot of history has been chronicled in what are known as “ancient languages.” The English-only movement removes emphasis from the learning and preservation of foreign languages and de-incentivizes the public from dedicating time to languages other than English. At this rate, there will be a severe lack, and eventually a complete disappearance, of translators of ancient languages. This could mean there may be no way to interpret many historic texts that are discovered in the future.
I urge that states consider repealing their English-only policies and be more respectful of the immigrant groups that reside in their states. Policies are no good if they add hurdles, rather than justice and ease to the lives of the public. To me, and I hope to you, the English-only movement is the death of diversity.
The way I see it, America is not itself without diversity, so let’s celebrate it by being more liberal with our language and expansive use.
Khadijah Anwar is a first-year undergraduate from Dubai, UAE. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.