Argument: Official English offends idea of American diversity

Issue Report: English as US official language


“English-Only Laws Are Offensive to Our Nation’s Cherished Diversity.” MALDEF on “English-only/Official English laws perpetuate false but persistent stereotypes about the immigrant community, and fuel divisiveness and anti-immigrant sentiment. Scholars across the political spectrum note the reality that new immigrant populations are integrating at faster rates than in years past. This integration, though, is challenged by the hyperbole and hostility that currently dominates any serious discussion of immigration reform.

One only needs to look at history to see the flaws and questionable constitutionality of English-only policies. The push for English-only policies today, and the hostile climate in which they have arisen, are hardly unique in America’s history. In the late 1910’s, amidst nationwide anti-German sentiment fueled by World War I, several states passed English-only laws that sought to restrict the use of foreign languages in public. The most famous example was a 1918 edict by Governor William Harding of Iowa, which became known as the Babel Proclamation, and outlawed the use of foreign languages in all schools, all public addresses, all conversation in public places, on trains, and over the telephone. Most of those arrested under this proclamation were turned in by eavesdroppers and switchboard operators for using a foreign language during private telephone conversations.

Although proponents of anti-German laws of that time portrayed them as efforts to have “a united people, united in ideals, language and patriotism,” these efforts had unmistakably xenophobic roots. The Supreme Court addressed the anti-foreign language movement in 1923 in the seminal case of Meyer v. Nebraska, in which it found that English-only laws unconstitutionally infringed upon liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The case involved a challenge brought by a German group against a Nebraska law that prohibited the teaching of the German language to young children. The Nation’s highest court noted that the life, liberty and property protected by the Fourteenth Amendment included the right “those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” In holding that teaching and learning a foreign language were privileges included in that protection, the Court stated:

”The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue. Perhaps it would be highly advantageous if all had ready understanding of our ordinary speech, but this cannot be coerced with methods which conflict with the Constitution – a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means.”

The Meyer Court’s invalidation of the challenged English-only law was rooted in the Court’s recognition of constitutional principles of tolerance and respect for diversity. Contemporary English-only proposals are no less offensive to these ideals and directives.

It’s time we move the debate away from perpetuating hostile myths and focus resources and attention on the progress of immigrant populations and how we can further their integration. Our nation has a rich history of diversity and serving as a melting pot for various cultures. English-only policies ignore history and offend who we are as a nation.”

Kathleen McDade. Should English Be the Official Language of the United States of America?Associated Content. January 18th, 2008: “The idea is that if everyone speaks the same language, it facilitates melting-pot style assimilation. If we provide government services and paperwork in other languages, there’s no incentive to learn English. If people don’t learn English, they develop their own cultural enclaves instead of assimilating. If they develop cultural enclaves, we get racial and ethnic conflicts! Making English the official language is supposed to prevent this.

I have a problem with expecting everyone to assimilate into one culture. Cultural backgrounds are part of who we are. Why should we not promote and celebrate them – even to the point of forming enclaves? As long as people are willing to respect the laws of the land, I don’t see a problem with this. And I don’t know of any language-based racial and ethnic conflicts that have taken place in the U.S.”