Linguistic terrorism: 'English-only' laws largely a political weapon
Arizona Republic

Deborah Whitford
Freelance writer

Language is a difficult subject to discuss dispassionately because it's our essence. So when two languages come cheek to jowl, such as English and Spanish have in the United States, it becomes a hot-button issue. As Chicano poet Gloria Anzaldua (1942-2004) wrote in her book Borderlands: La Frontera: "So, if you really want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. I am my language."

Linguistic terrorism has plagued children of immigrants and Native Americans alike for generations. "We got swatted for speaking Spanish on the playground," Alberto Alvaro Rios wrote in his book Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir. "If speaking Spanish is bad, and our parents speak Spanish, then they must be bad," he concluded, "and we became ashamed of them."

Fueling the language debate are clashes arising over illegal immigrants fleeing dire circumstances. Somehow, the vision immortalized by Emma Lazarus' words on the pedestal of Lady Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore" has been blinded by the glare of intolerance. Blame it on 9/11, if you must, but the anti-foreign-language fervor has been around for a long time. We disrespected the languages of Native and African Americans because non-White minorities spoke them, and we ostracized German during World War I. Now, it's Spanish, the language of the Hispanics.

The irony is that we are a blend of races and cultures and that most of our ancestors were immigrants. The co-mingling of languages is as much a part of that brew as the people who speak them. Yet we have become so smug about English that we ignore the prominence of foreign words in our vocabularies.

French: casserole, cassette and clientele.

Latin: acumen, genius, moratorium.

Greek: thesis, barometer, autistic.

German: angst, kindergarten, sauerkraut.

Turkish: macrame, bridge, caviar.

Italian: pizza, ghetto, ballerina.

Japanese: banzai, sushi.

Afrikaner: trek.

Hungarian: coach, goulash, paprika.

The list goes on. Spanish left its indelible mark upon our culture long before the arrival of Cristóbal Colón. Just close your eyes and press your finger onto any map of the good ol' USA, and chances are that you'll be pointing to a place with a Spanish name like Colorado, Montana or Florida. Is there any language group that we haven't "borrowed" from?

Yet we look upon the influx of foreign languages with suspicion and derision - the billboards in Spanish, the mom-and-pop piñata shops, the Little Mexicos. We've got them in our sights. Our weapon? Legislation. Thirty states from Arkansas to Wyoming have enacted laws making English their official language, which is not a bad thing as long as the sole purpose is to enable the government to run smoothly unencumbered by language barriers. After all, we can't possibly conduct business in all languages, so we have to narrow it down to one or two.

But it's one thing to specify English as the official language and quite another to issue "English only" mandates that order all government employees to refrain from offering assistance in other languages. Heaven forbid a Navajo legislator speak to his Navajo constituents in Navajo or a bilingual welfare worker speak Spanish or a state park ranger give directions in French or German.

An English-only mandate not only hampers effective communication but, according to the written opinion of the Arizona Supreme Court, it also "chills First Amendment rights."

Stephen Montoya, a lawyer who represented legislators and state employees in Arizona seeking to overturn one such law, called it racist. "The only individuals in Arizona who don't speak English fluently, or not at all, are people of color. I see this as a way to keep them out of the political process."

To legislate against Spanish is to ignore the largest minority group in this country. The United States contains the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking population in the world, estimated to be about 32 million. From a global perspective, Spanish is the third most spoken language on the planet with 400 million to 480 million speakers.

Mandate or no mandate, the language on the street is the real language of the people, and it won't be driven out of Dodge, so to speak. France and Spain also have tried to ward off the influences of foreign languages, but they're fighting a losing battle. And so are we because language is not set in stone, it is always evolving. If this weren't true, we'd still be speaking like Moses.

As for the assertions that these "foreigners" aren't even trying to learn English, although it is true that some people resist learning a new language and cozy up to that which is familiar, others are eager to assimilate and clamor for classes, which are in short supply in the Valley.

It also is true that some people just don't have what it takes to learn a new language, no matter how hard they try. Even with total immersion, learning a foreign language can take a minimum of three years to be conversant. Moreover, English is not an easy language. But some - dare I say many - are trying. To presume that they are not is like criticizing a fat person on a diet, expecting them to be thin the next day. Give them a chance, will you?

Language is a beautiful resource, a bridge to other cultures and new ways of thinking. If we stymie the process, the best we can hope for will be the unearthing of American English by future archaeologists studying a dead culture.

Deborah Whitford is a freelance writer and courtroom clerk for Maricopa County Superior Court. She also is a student of Spanish.