English-only? There is a Cure!

Various versions of the English-only movement have been in existence in the US since the early 1800s. The idea that having one official language establishes some sort of political or cultural unity has a pernicious hold on the minds of many Americans. I was not surprised, therefore, to see the specter of English-only arise again in the political sphere.

In addressing potential state-hood for Puerto Rico, (a primarily Spanish speaking US territory) Former US Senator Rick Santorum was recently quoted as saying:

Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law… And that is that English has to be the principal language. There are other states with more than one language such as Hawaii but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language. (Reuters. March 14, 2012)

Not only does this display a mind-numbingly misinformed understanding of federal law regarding the supposed requirement that English be the primary language, but it is also certain to not win over any friends in a primarily Spanish speaking community. While there are some states that have passed laws making English the official language, not all of them have done so nor, contrary to what might be asserted otherwise, does federal law require it.

For reasons that should be apparent to anyone with half of a functioning neuron, organizations such as the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (English-only position paper) are opposed to English-only efforts. The LSA stated their opposition in a 1986-7 resolution that declares, among other things,

The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional compulsion to learn the language.

American unity has never rested primarily on unity of language, but rather on common political and social ideals.

Like I said, anyone with half of a functioning neur-… never mind. You’d think that, in a 21st century America, we’d not even have to state something so obvious. Somehow facts just shouldn’t get in the way of political expediency, I guess.

Though I often work with English language learners, I don’t often encounter the sorts who openly advertise their allegiance to the English-only movement. This has occurred just once. I tried to talk about the myths that the concept of English-only promotes but wasn’t getting anywhere.

During the conversation I was reminded of a quote by Noam Chomsky describing the object of linguistic theory:

Linguistic theory is concerned with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions such as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interests, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance.

In short, it is something that does not exist. Speech communities are not homogeneous and no speakers are perfect in their knowledge of their language. We are all subject to memory and recall limitations, distractions, attention shifts and errors. We are all imperfect speakers.

Perhaps I failed to articulate my position, or perhaps my fellow commuter was too stubborn to see my wisdom, but when he also affirmed a belief that people with accents shouldn’t teach English (of course, we all have accents) I resorted to a tactic based on the idea that we are all imperfect speakers. I made him doubt his own language proficiency.

“Before you say that, shouldn’t you speak English better than you do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ve already made numerous errors in this conversation.”

The conversation ended shortly thereafter.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin