English-Only Is Not Only About English

pow2Last week Whole Foods fired two guys for speaking Spanish while at work. It became such big news through social media that advocates started petitions and threatened with a nationwide boycott if the stores didn’t change the English-only policy by next week.

Just last week, my Chinese speaking colleague asked me to send an email to the Spanish speakers in our translators’ group. Since I sent personal and different emails to each one, I wrote them in Spanish. It was just natural and I didn’t even think about it. Of course when they replied and included non-Spanish speakers among the recipients, it was rude that they couldn’t understand what I had written originally. Although it isn’t enforced by any policy and since we’re a multilingual group, we try to speak English most of the time, but if we’re having a one-on-one conversation with a speaker of our same language, it just comes out almost as a reflex.

I get it. You enter the room and everybody is speaking a language you don’t understand. You don’t know if they’re making an important decision you should be aware of or if they’re just not fond of your new neon yellow shirt. It can be frustrating and intimidating. I’m sure we are all familiar with that feeling, like that time when everybody was laughing at the joke you didn’t hear or that other time when you moved to a country where a language other than yours was spoken.

Every time I hear that immigrants should learn English, I feel like not enough credit is given to us for actually trying to do just that. I personally haven’t met anyone yet refusing to do so, but learning a language is hard and it takes time. I honestly don’t think that the people making such comments realize what it takes and what it means to learn a language out of necessity, otherwise they would be more compassionate while expressing their views.

Our mother tongue is the means to express who we really are and where we come from. It represents our identity and background, especially to us who didn’t grow up in a bilingual environment. When that is threatened, I can’t help but feel a bit resentful. So, I can relate to the Americans who feel the same way and want their language to be preserved too. According to an article prepared for the American Psychological Association by the Panel of Experts on English-Only Legislation, any positive consequences of learning a second language are far outweighed by the negative effects of losing one’s native language in other, more important areas of life. The loss may be to an individual’s ethnic or group identity. As Taylor (1987) noted: “If learning in the second language contributes to the demise in knowledge and use of the heritage language, the results can be devastating”.

We all really want the same. We want to be included and respected. We want to be safe. If there’s information regarding our security we all want to make sure we can understand it. That’s why it makes sense that in those cases Americans have access to it and Mayor Bloomberg delivers his speech in Spanish afterwards. Times and circumstances are changing and we should be open to embrace them. Even if we want no part in it, can’t we exercise some empathy, press one for English and carry on?

2 thoughts on “English-Only Is Not Only About English

  1. Personally, I have no problem with people speaking a different language when they are having a casual conversation with one another in the work place. If it was a business matter that is something different. It seems the work place is becoming less people friendly and there are too many unnecessary rules.

  2. This is a great opinion piece. I completely understand how you must have felt because, yes, for many of us it’s a reflex and a switching to our native language is not a thing we do out of rudeness or exclusion. It is who we are and it ties us to a deeper understanding with many people.

    English-only as practiced in ELL classrooms is so detrimental to children’s self-identity. No wonder there’s a huge education gap in the Latino community! Learning a language is about adding another, not subtracting one.

    I do wish more people understood that.

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