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History Matters: Arizona and English-Only

May 28, 2010

All of the attention on Arizona these days has focused on the new immigration (HB2162) and ethnic studies (HB2281) laws signed by Gov. Jan Brewer on April 30 and May 11, 2010, respectively. The new immigration law requires police to determine if a person is in the U.S. legally. The ethnic studies law legally prohibits ethnic studies programs in Arizona state schools.

But what has gone under the radar is the Arizona Department of Education’s audit of teachers who are not fluent in English, who make grammatical errors while speaking, or who have heavy accents.

Go back t0 1994, with the founding of the ProEnglish Movement, whose creation was to defend Arizona’s English-Only law, and we get historical insights into what transpires in Arizona today.

The English-only, or ProEnglish movement in the U.S. is not new. In 1919, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” It is the kind of thinking that has driven individuals to vote for the English-Only legislation.

In 1982, then Senator Hayakawa introduced legislation that would make English the official language of the United States. It failed in the House, but served as the impetus for many states to move towards English-only legislation. While it may seem harmless to declare English as the official language of the U.S., there are various policy implications of such legislation. For instance, it can lead to a restriction on government funding for bilingual education. Moreover, it can result in repealing of laws allowing multilingual ballots and voting materials, which could hamper the voting capabilities of minority communities.  In addition, many feel that goes against the first amendment which states that individuals have the right to communicate and petition with the government. If English-Only is the law of the land then employees of the government will not be able to provide assistance to individuals in other languages.

The issue of English-Only being passed as a law is especially problematic with the changing demographics of the U.S. In fact, increasing cases of injustice towards minorities have led many to raise eyebrows towards English-Only legislation that can be seen as further oppressing minority communities. More importantly, the notion of English-Only is based on false perceptions about the role a common language plays in promoting national unity.

English-Only legislation can have an especially strong impact on the education for minority communities including African Americans. Whose english, absent of grammatical errors, is being referred to? Such legislation reinforces the ideologies around the African American English not  being a valid dialect of English. And this can be problematic as restricting a person’s use of their mother tongue prevents them from fully engaging within the society in which they live.  Children may come to believe that their native language is improper and inappropriate.

Many people who vote in favor of English-only  legislation are oftentimes not familiar with its impact. As Lu notes, in the spirit of the work by Shirley Brice Heath,

“When a school reinforces an English-Only policy, it sends a message to all children that minority languages have less value than English as tools of learning. And because the school is a microcosm of society, this message also suggests that those languages are not an integral part of the American society. This message equally deprives mainstream children of the opportunity to experience the cultural diversity in this country, and robs every child of the chance to learn the full potential of human possibilities.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ayeska permalink*
    May 29, 2010 8:59 pm

    What in the world has been going on in Arizona?

    America has always been a nation of immigrants; the nation was “pioneered” by pilgrims immigrating from Europe, it’s fields were tended by Africans imported and enslaved against their will, the transcontinental railroad was built using Chinese labor, factories depended on the labor of European immigrants entering Ellis Island, and now American companies rely on Black and Latino markets and labor. All of these populations brought their respective languages with them to America, gradually influencing English over time. To deny the legitimacy of languages other than English is to deny the valuable contributions made by their communities.

  2. Activist permalink*
    May 31, 2010 5:44 pm

    Sign this petition against the recent xenophobic laws in Arizona:

  3. Christopher Pesch permalink
    May 4, 2011 10:00 am

    This is incredibly troubling news from Arizona. It doesn’t seem like the governmental powers that be truly understand the ramifications of this sort of action. The mere idea that a teacher would go jobless because of their accent or their first language seems directly contradictory to the ideals of the American Dream, the idea that folks can come to America and do what they want. The idea of the American melting pot seems to be falling out of favor and a more homogeneous, English speaking Arizonian society seems to be taking hold. It’s just very troubling that state-endorsed racial prejudice can take hold so blatantly.

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