With new Official English bills pending in Congress, and similar measures in state legislatures around the country, the question is moving front and center: Does the United States need to enforce the use of the English language?
Many Americans say yes, and note that it’s become easier to function in the United States with barely any proficiency in English.
But many others say no, and stress that everyone knows that English is the nation’s official language, and that most immigrants make an effort to learn it amid juggling jobs and raising their families.
“Learning English has become a neglected area of our immigration policy,” said Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration controls. “A lot of people are not feeling like they have to learn to English.”
“Immigration into the United States is so dominated by immigrants from one particular linguistic group,” Vaughan said, “this enables the creation of segments of society – because there are so many people who speak Spanish – that don’t have the incentive or pressure to learn English because they can get by without it.”
But those who oppose Official English measures say they are mean-spirited.
They argue that the congressional bill, sponsored by Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King and Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, would disenfranchise many people who are not yet fluent in English through its requirement that all government business be conducted in only English.
"The English-Only bill panders to anti-immigrant sentiments and is largely a waste of time,” said Frank Argot-Freyre, a professor at Kean University and head of New Jersey’s Commission on New Americans.
“What a foolish bill like this does is make it difficult for municipal, county and state governments to effectively communicate with their constituents.”
“ If a municipality has a large Spanish-speaking or Mandarin-speaking population,” Argot-Freyre said, “what is the problem in providing information about municipal services in their language?”
More than 30 states have Official English measures, though most of them are largely symbolic, experts say.
But the congressional bill – a renewed attempt by King and Inhofe to push the Official English measure, which they’ve tried unsuccessfully in prior years – includes requirements that would have a tangible impact on millions of people in the United States who have limited English proficiency.
It requires that all government services and literature be provided only in English, except in cases of health or national emergencies, for instance.
The bill also says that workplaces, both in the private and public sector, would be expected to abide by U.S. laws governing language – a provision which is not immediately clear. Further, it allows people to take civil action in a case where the language law is not followed.
Raúl González, the director of legislative affairs for the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s oldest Latino civil rights group, said he doubts that the bill would become law.
But González said it still posed a threat and should be taken seriously.
“These English-Only bills are often coal mine canaries,” Gonzalez said. “If this passes, then people will want to pass more anti-immigrant bills. English and foreign language – Spanish – is the low-hanging fruit. The English Only movement is a perennial thing, but it gains more energy in years when immigration is being talked about.”
“These things are rarely disconnected from immigration,” he said.
Stanley Renshon, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, said that both the U.S. government and immigrants themselves must do more when it comes to learning English.
“The basic question about immigration is how much do you want to frame immigration through the lens of becoming American,” Renshon said, “and try to define what that means and do something about it, or have a ‘Who cares, let the chips fall where they may, laissez-faire approach.'"
“We used to do that in the past,” Renshon said, “but it’s not working as well as in the past.”
Many critics of such bills believe the motivations behind them have less to do with English than they do with Spanish, and its growing importance in the United States.
“Let’s face it,” González said, “this is not about Mandarin or Urdu or Farsi, this is about Spanish. It goes to the idea that there’s all this stuff around us in Spanish."
“The message of these bills is not ‘I want to encourage you to learn English,’” he said, “it’s 'I don’t want to hear someone speaking Spanish when I’m at Walmart or Applebee’s.'"
González and Argot-Freyre both point out that by the second and third generation, Latinos are not only English-dominant, but that often they have poor Spanish-language skills.
“It might feel to the average person that there’s this onslaught [of foreign languages],” González said, and added that contrary to perception, English as a Second Language courses across the country have long waiting lists.
Renshon said that perhaps a prudent approach to encouraging immigrants to learn English is not for the government to cut off foreign-language services outright, but to offer “time-limited help.”
“You can’t expect immigrants to be conversant in English the second they arrive,” he said.
So Renshon believes there should be a system in which, say, an immigrant can obtain services or documents in his or her native language for a set number of years before they become available to that person only in English.
“The government has a responsibility to make sure new immigrants are able to navigate their new country,” he said. “On the other hand, you make it quite clear that [the foreign language service] can’t go on forever and you need to learn the English language.”
“What Americans don’t like is the idea that immigrants want to stand apart and be off in their own ethnic enclaves,” Renshon said. “The idea that they want to become American is very important for the continued public support for immigration.”