PJ Media

Why Speak English in America?

Recently some parents on a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) advisory council got a little crazy. Though I’m sure they’d prefer it if I said they went “un poquito loco.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that Spanish-speakers walked out of a council meeting this month after African-American parents censured the chairman for bad behavior. This followed months of disagreement and back-and-forth arguing. The acrimony can be traced back to February, when Roberto Fonseca started to give his chairman’s report in Spanish. According to the Times:

Some in the audience objected; arguments and recriminations ensued, and school police rushed over amid concerns that a fistfight would break out, witnesses said.

The obvious question is this: why did Fonseca (who is bilingual) think it was appropriate to run the meeting in Spanish? After all, African-Americans are well represented on the council, and many of the Latino parents speak English. Furthermore, current bylaws stipulate that all parent meetings across the district be held in English.

Apparently Fonseca took the opportunity to challenge those bylaws, motivated by a lawyer’s conclusion that the English-only rule was illegal and impractical and the district’s assurance that it would not be enforced. The LAUSD probably fears the reactions of parents like Guadalupe Aguiar, who told the Times that it is “racist when parents are told that, in America, they have to speak English.”

Ms. Aguiar’s logic has already cast the Salvation Army in the role of bigots. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the charity back in March for requiring workers to speak English on the job. The EEOC claims that two employees at the Salvation Army’s Framingham, Mass., thrift store were fired “on the basis of their national origin.” As John Fund reports in the Wall Street Journal, however, the Salvation Army’s English-only policy was clearly posted, and the workers were given a year’s notice that they should speak English while on duty.

That wasn’t good enough for Rep. Charles Gonzalez of Texas. The Hispanic Democrat is quoted in the Journal as saying, “If it is not relevant, it is discriminatory, it is gratuitous, it is a subterfuge to discriminate against people based on national origin.” This type of heated rhetoric made its way to the House Floor on Nov. 8, when Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois called English-only requirements symbolic of “bigotry and prejudice.”

But not all politicians think it’s racist to insist that employees speak English when working in America. In fact, Gonzalez and Gutierrez were reacting to an amendment introduced by Lamar Alexander from Tennessee. Alexander’s legislation would shield employers from federal lawsuits if they refuse to hire non-English speakers. The amendment passed the Senate by 75-19 last month, and, more recently, the House by 218-186, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is determined to kill it.

This Congressional bickering calls to mind the Senate’s passage of the Inhofe Amendment, which would have designated English as the national language had the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act passed the House last year. Though the proposal wouldn’t have made English the nation’s official language, it did declare that no one has a “right, entitlement or claim to have the government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services or provide materials in any language other than English.” Senator Harry Reid said the proposal was — wait for it — racist.

But are you really discriminating against non-English speakers when you pressure them to speak English, or are you actually doing them a great favor? My brief career as an elementary school teacher for the LAUSD taught me that it’s the latter.

For several years I proctored the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which tests the English proficiency of students whose primary language is other than English. I can’t tell you how many times I sat across from students, who, having recently arrived from Mexico or El Salvador, were unable to speak even a word of English. Since I couldn’t give them any instructions or tips in Spanish, they became very frustrated when they were unable to find the right word to identify pictures of basic things like apples or cars.

Fast-forward a few years and those very same students now know that the opposite of “wide” is “narrow,” and they can write in complete sentences. It turns out that English immersion, which was mandated in California by Proposition 227, does not irreparably harm immigrant children. In the long run, it improves their confidence and ability to succeed academically.

Some argue that bilingual education is just as effective as English immersion, but I’ve seen firsthand that that’s not the case. One third-grade teacher at my school primarily spoke to her English as a Second Language (ESL) students in Spanish. Because she usually requested me as a substitute teacher, I was able to see how her students did not improve their language skills rapidly, since they used Spanish as a crutch whenever they had difficulty expressing themselves. Similarly, my Spanish didn’t get any better when I spent a year abroad in Spain during college, due to the fact that I constantly talked with the other Americans, also in my program, in English.

Real discrimination is, in fact, much more likely to occur when educators focus on accommodation over immersion. The family of Alek Villaraldo has filed a $700,000 lawsuit against the Hillsboro School District in Oregon because the young boy spent kindergarten and a portion of first grade in an ESL program alongside Spanish speakers with limited proficiency. Alek actually only speaks English, but school officials viewed him as Latino first and placed him accordingly. Remarkably, the ESL teacher pointed to Alek’s “Mexican ancestry” when the boy’s parents complained to the school.

My wife is of Spanish ancestry (I met her during that year abroad), and the question we are most often asked is what language we speak at home. The answer is that we almost always talk to each other in English unless we are visiting her family in Spain (oh, or when she’s angry at me). Our Los Angeles condo is what you might call an “English-only” location. As a result, she’s picked up the language much quicker, and improved her performance at work. Obviously, she’s not the only immigrant to America who has benefited from being able to speak English. As Jose Martin Samano, TV Azteca’s U.S. anchor, has said, “Immigrants here in the U.S. can make up to 50% or 60% more if they speak both English and Spanish.” That’s bad news for the 10 percent of the population that can’t speak English well or at all, and one reason why four out of five Hispanics think it is “very important” that people are able to speak English in America.

One final note: There’s a fine line between gratuitous meanness and setting standards. I have in mind a story that made headlines last year about the Philadelphia cheesesteak shop owner who posted a sign stating: “This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING ‘PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH.'” It’s one thing to demand that employees speak the language of business on the job; it’s quite another to require it of all customers, even when they may be tourists.

A story told to me by a friend should drive this point home. After a long train ride to Paris on a vacation, he tiredly walked up to an information booth at the station. The Union Flag sticker assured him that he wouldn’t have to open up the French for Dummies book to ask for hotel information. This is the answer he received (in perfect English, mind you):

“This is France. We don’t speak English here.”

By hurting the chances of immigrants to reach their full potential in America, politicians like Reid and Pelosi are acting just as cruel as the rude Frenchman.

Aaron Hanscom is a Los Angeles-based editor for Pajamas Media; his own blog is Scribblings.