English Plus Versus English Only
LULAC's activism has extended to the realm of language and cultural rights by holding seminars and public symposiums on language and immigration issues, and has spoken out on printed and electronic medias against the movement to limit, or to eradicate, the use of minority languages.
LULAC has monitored the emergence and growing prominence of the movement to declare "English" the official language in some states. This movement, if unchallenged, will eventually make "English" the official language of the United States of North America. LULAC, has debated this issue on countless occasions, has formed educational and information forums and has created several task forces on language policies.
LULAC feels that cultural and linguistic pluralism is part of the "true glue" that holds our great nation together and has established the "English Plus Concept" as a response to the un-American opposing nature of the "English Only Movement."
Recently, LULAC saw a positive development in its campaign to promote the "English Plus Concept." Through combined efforts of LULAC and Atlanta's mayor, the Honorable Andrew Young, the Atlanta City Council unanimously passed a resolution designating that city "multilingual and multicultural." The resolution stipulates Atlanta "respects the linguistic and cultural differences of its citizens." It was passed as a response to the resolution passed by the Georgia State Legislature designating "English" the official language of the state. This was a great encouragement to LULAC to continue promoting its "English Plus Concept."
This concept celebrates the cultural and linguistic diversification of America and treats this nation's multiethnic and multilingual communities as national resources.
Great number of politicians and community leaders have already endorsed the "English Plus Concept" because it states that although young people of limited English proficiency "need and want to be fluent in English to enter into the mainstream of this nation, they have much to offer from their diversified languages and cultural backgrounds." These national and natural resources must be protected and celebrated.
The "English Plus Concept" promotes the addition of a second language without forfeiting one's mother tongue fosters the suggestion that "additive bilingualism" creates "a language competent society" in which both limited English proficient individuals and native English speakers will be able to develop fluency in a second language while simultaneously developing reading and writing skills in the home language.
Several studies have shown that only four percent of high school graduates in our nation have had at least two of foreign language training, while one hundred percent of limited English speaking students have capabilities in other languages.
History tells us that the United States of North America is a nation of immigrants and many languages. The United States of North America has built on this as a strength and can continue to build if we continue to see diversity as strength. What we share is a common patriotism, a common dream of opportunity in our nation, no matter what our heritage or what generation our family came to this nation. The "English Plus Concept" continues the support and the acknowledgment of our strengths through common dreams and through diversity of backgrounds all focused on the same goals- justice, opportunity, responsibility, and the best of human resources. "English Plus" is one way to acknowledge a very important human resource- individuals with understanding of different languages and cultures in our ever shrinking world.
Attempts to make English official represents the first time that the constitution of the United States of North America has been utilized to intentionally take away the rights of American citizens rather that to extend or strengthen them. Never in our history, except for a brief period of prohibition, has the amendment process been used to revoke basic rights. As the 1984 LULAC testimony on the "English Language Amendment" points out,
"This is not the 13th Amendment ending slavery. This is not the 14th Amendment calling for equal protection laws. This is not the 19th Amendment allowing women the right to vote. Nor is this the Equal Rights Amendment ensuring women fair treatment in society."
If the ongoing efforts to make English the official language of Texas and the United States are successful, English will not be the nation's official language, discrimination will. The "English Only Movement" is merely the latest form of "linguistic racism" in Texas and in the United States. Antagonism and discrimination based on language goes beyond race and has victimized virtually every immigrant.
Both the 19th and the early 20th centuries witnessed legislation which institutionalized discrimination against blacks and other immigrants groups. Paralleling the rise of Jim Crow in the 1980s which denied newly won constitutional rights to Black Americans. "English Only" and nativist groups have spawned efforts to reduce the political clout of new immigrants, eradicate their languages, and keep them from the social economic mainstream since the last century.
Laws were enacted to prevent Chinese from testifying in court, Japanese from owning land, German from being learned in schools, and Hispanic children from attending integrated schools.
It took the Supreme Court in 1923 to strike down laws in over twenty states which made "English official" and prohibited the teaching of other languages in schools. That such "English Only" legislation was reprehensive to the basic laws of our nation was made clear by Justice McReynolds, who wrote for the Court in Meyer vs. Nebraska (1923) U.S. 390,
"The protection of the United States Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue. Perhaps it would be highly advantageous if all had ready understanding of our ordinary speech, but this cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the constitution- a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means."
Notwithstanding, this long held Constitutional Doctrine, a new "English Only" movement has emerged. "U.S. English," which claims a membership of 170,000, maintains that the public use of foreign languages, especially Spanish, in our country will create "language segregation" and a gradual lost of national unity. Some even suggest that bilingualism, especially Spanish, constitutes a national risk.
At first glance, the idea of an "English (Only) Language Amendment" seems harmless. Why oppose a symbolic amendment to declare by law what we all know anyway, that English is already the language of our country? Why not legally sanction the "glue" that binds us together as a nation? While its supporters depict the "English Only Movement" as a gentle reminder that "English" is the nation's language, and who could disagree with this; nonetheless, elevating it to constitutional status, immediately and undeniably, brings a host of negative consequences and exposes the true and hidden agenda of this movement.
First, an "English (Only) Language Amendment" will not make use of English any more official than it is today. There are already many laws governing the use of English. Most of the 50 states, and almost all of the territories, have English as a legally sanctioned requirement for public and judicial institutions. These laws regulate court and legislative proceedings, official records and legal notices. Most states also require English language examinations before a person may practice a profession. English language and civic requirements still exist for naturalization and citizenship.
Second, amending the Constitution of this great nation, or a State Constitution, is not a matter to be taken lightly and requires serious consideration of its potential consequences. Amendments fundamentally set out to correct institutional or systemic denial of civil rights, and are therefore necessary adjustments to preserve equal opportunity and equality for all citizens. As such, any critical analysis of the "English (Only) Language Amendment" must answer two questions,
Exactly whose rights are being violated because English is not the official language? Who exactly will benefit from passage of such an amendment?
By arguing that the "traditional" status of English is in jeopardy does not justify a Constitutional Amendment to restore "primacy." English speakers still retain full access to equal education and employment opportunity, are entitled to full protection under the law, and may utilize the print or electronic media of their choice. Thus, the conclusion from the availability of such freedoms is that Civil and Constitutional Rights of monolingual English speakers are not violated by lack of an official language. On the contrary, the fundamental question to ask about the "English (Only) Language Amendment" is this,
Whose Constitutional and Civil Rights will be violated if English is declared the official language of the United States?
The answer is,
The language minority individual, who stands to be directly and gravely affected by passage of such an amendment.
In fact, rather than ensuring the participation of language minority persons in the political process, the "English (Only) Language Amendment" would end, or at least severely limit, numerous language assistance programs and services.
The "English Only Movement" would prohibit interpreters in courts and medical institutions. It would eliminate Spanish language radio and television broadcasting and possible 911 emergency operators. Currently, bilingual personnel are available at federally funded community centers, as well as alcohol and drug treatment programs which serve language minority communities. The "English (Only) Language Amendment" would likely affect the availability of the bilingual personnel at these centers, which have recently come under attack by the "English Only" proponents.
Section D of California's "English Only Amendment" encourages widespread attacks on all uses of Spanish and other languages in public and private contexts. Designated the "Personal Right of Action and Jurisdiction of Courts," this section permits anyone living or doing business in California to sue in State Courts to enforce the use of "English Only." Therefore, local governments, hospital districts, state agencies, utility companies, etc., would be subject to lawsuits. Even though courts might reject the "English Only" arguments, the mere ability of an individual to take them to court will deter these entities from properly serving non-English speaking residents in order to avoid legal fees, court costs and litigation.
Limited English proficient persons do not need to be encouraged; they need to be enabled. As Senator Domenici stated before the Senate in September 1985,
English (Only) Language Amendment will not help anyone learn the English language. It will not improve our It will not lead to a cohesive nation. In fact, it will create a more divided nation. This proposed amendment is an insult to all Americans for whom English is not the first language now at this stage of their life and to all those Americans who would like to learn English but who cannot for one reason or another."
Legislating an official language will not produce "better citizens" or make them feel "more American." On the contrary, the effort sends ethnic communities the message that it is un-American to be actively bilingual and that the desire to maintain ties to one's cultural and linguistic heritage is unpatriotic. Paradoxically, the stated objective of the "English Only Movement" to foster unity and nationhood by legislating a common language is having the opposite effect. Entire communities have split ideologically along racial and language lines.
No one, least of all limited English proficient individuals, question that English is already the official language of the nation. Hispanic Americans and other language minority groups have always accepted English as the national language and do not need new federal legislation to inform them of this fact. It would be foolish and cruel to deny that which Hispanics and other ethnic and linguistic minorities in this nation know probably better than anyone: English is the language of the general societal, political, and economic discourse. To get ahead in these areas, one must know English. Yet, knowing English is simply not enough, to suggest that this is the case, as do groups like "English Only," makes the "Official English Movement" as one looking to the 19th century and out of step with America entering the 21st century.
Article written under a grant given to LULAC National - Washington, D.C., Office - 1986. Frank M. Ortiz - LULAC Past Vice President/Southwest Region contributed to this article.