photo credit: thejcgerm

Dale un beso a tu mamá. Kom och läsa en bok med mig. Where are your ears?

These are all things my 16 month old son understands.

Raising a trilingual child has made me very concerned with one of the related arguments in the general anti-"illegal immigration" movement. Many people feel that America should be an English-only nation. Indeed, thirty states (Utah included) have passed laws declaring English to be the “official language”. Perhaps summarizing the movement best, President Theodore Roosevelt once said: “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.”

Why should English be elevated as the only “official” language in a country whose diversity and historical “melting pot” label are so revered? If a family of immigrants from Colombia come to America, decide to become citizens, and pay just as much in taxes as anybody else, why should the government prohibit them from communicating with the people living off of their tax dollars, simply because they prefer to speak another language? To be sure, the government cannot and should not employ individuals and produce documents in every language on the Earth—that would be far too cost-prohibitive. A more inclusive threshold, however, can accommodate the majority of citizens whose desire or ability to speak English does not measure up to an arbitrary standard imposed by bureaucrats and legislators.

Even if that threshold is placed as high as 10%, the only other language that would qualify would be Spanish. Clearly, the refusal to accommodate such a commonly spoken language is directly related to the general anti-immigrant sentiment that leads people to demand mass deportations, barbed-wire fences, and other draconian policies. Thus, the demand for English being the only official language is, just like federal immigration policy itself, rooted in racism.

As I speak only in Spanish to my son, I ponder what opportunities he will have, as he grows older, to interact with other people in that language. I wonder what message we send our youth, my son included, when we implicitly label all non-English languages as being substandard. I try to think of why the government spends hundreds of millions of dollars teaching adults a second language for foreign policy and military purposes, while a far superior method of creating a muti-lingual workforce is to teach children. Yet, in a culture where linguistic segregationists are vocal and persuasive, our youth grow up in an environment that treats English the way Hitler’s youth were instructed to regard the supposedly “pure Aryan race”.

In a time when the world grows smaller through instant communication, America should be embracing the diversity for which it has been historically known. We should be looking at the skills adults need and infusing them into our children. Rather than sending a message to our youth of English being a superior language which should stand supreme in contrast with all others, we should embrace the vast ethnic varieties which exist, and welcome people of all speaking abilities in any language. America, rather than making others conform to her own linguistic standard, should lay down a welcome mat in multiple languages.


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