The United States of America is a constitutional republic that operates on a democratic contradiction: Everyone is equal, but the majority rules. This has not been more evident than in the use of language in this country. English may be the lingua franca of its people, but it is far from the only language that’s spoken. The United States is a multilingual country that includes an innumerable amount of languages being used every day by an innumerable number of people. It is in our interest as educators to provide a fair and equal education to our students and to protect their rights to use their language.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides protection to the exercise of free speech: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” It is important to note that this amendment is not annotated with limiting legal protection to only speech that’s spoken in English. Therefore, it is a right to exercise the freedom of speech in any and all languages.
Counterintuitive to the multilingual nature of the American people, efforts have been made on a national legislative level to regulate the use of language in official matters. The 114th United States Congress, the current meeting, has produced multiple bills that support the establishment of English as the official language of the United States. These bills, if ever successfully passed into law, will create a legal precedent in which discrimination based on an individual’s language will be a legally-condoned practice. Under the law, if one cannot speak English, they’ll be denied government participation and subsequently disenfranchised from societal functions.
H.R. 997- English Language Unity Act of 2015
On February 13, 2015, Representative Steve King (R-IA) introduced H.R. 997-English Language Unity Act of 2015 to the House of Representatives. Under section two of the bill, Representative King concluded the following:
“(1) The United States is comprised of individuals from diverse ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, and continues to benefit from this rich diversity
(2) Throughout the history of the United States, the common thread binding individuals of differing backgrounds has been the English language” (2)
H.R. 997, if passed, will make the following statements federal law:
“To declare English as the official language of the United States, to establish a uniform English language rule for naturalization, and to avoid misconstructions of the English language texts of the laws of the United States, pursuant to Congress’ powers to provide for the general welfare of the United States and to establish a uniform rule of naturalization under article I, section 8, of the Constitution” (King 1).
S.678 English Language Unity Act of 105
Less than a month after Representative King introduced his bill to the House of Representatives to make language the official language of the United States, Senator James M. Inhofe (R-OK) introduced an identical bill in the Senate on March 3rd, 2015:
“To declare English as the official language of the United States, to establish a uniform English language rule for naturalization, and to avoid misconstructions of the English language texts of the laws of the United States, pursuant to Congress’ powers to provide for the general welfare of the United States and to establish a uniform rule of naturalization under article I, section 8, of the Constitution” (1)
Closing Remarks on Legislation
Both of these bills conclude the existence of efforts in our bicameral national legislature to make English the official language of the country despite its current status as lingua franca. It is contradictory to recognize and praise the contributions of diversity while making an attempt to suppress that diversity through passing these bills into law. All that these bills would really achieve, if passed, is deny individuals who use languages other than English the right to government services, entitlements, accommodations, legal assistance, and social support.
More often that we notice, languages are organized by uninformed speakers into a hierarchy from a greater quality to that of a lesser quality. Native speakers of any language are likely to place their language as the top of this imagined hierarchy because it’s the language they use the most in their daily lives in their communities. However, this action marginalizes the communication ability of all language and likewise demeans their speakers: “In an age when discrimination in terms of race, colour, and religion or gender is not publicly acceptable, the last bastion of overt social discrimination will continue to be a person’s use of language” (Milroy 64).
Languages are to be protected and respected for their use as a form of verbal communication from one speaker to another in a grammatical manner. To devalue language is intellectually dishonest because it suggests an objective detriment that only exists in the mind of someone not acquainted with the rules of usage of that language: “All languages are capable of the same types of expansion of vocabulary to deal with whatever new areas of life their speakers need to talk about” (Harlow 13).
The United States Census Bureau, operating under the supervision of the United States Department of Commerce, once asked respondents over the age of five years old multiple specific questions about the language they used at home: “Does this person speak a language other than English at home?”, “What is this language?”, and “How well does this person speak English?” Although the Census has been recorded every decade since 1890, these questions have only been asked in the 1980, 1990, and 2000 censuses. These questions concerning language use were removed from the 2010 Census. The information recorded by the American Community Survey in 2011 provides us with the most accurate estimation of language use other than English across the United States at approximately the same time the 2010 United States Census was recorded (Ryan 1-2).
According to the 2011 American Community Survey, nearly 231 million people over the age of five speak only English at home. The remaining 60.6 million of the total 291.5 million people surveyed over the age of five, or approximately 20% of the United States population, reported speaking “a language other than English at home.” That predominant language that is being spoken at home other than English is Spanish which accounts for approximately 37.6 million speakers. The remaining 23 million speakers of non-English languages account for a variety of language groups, such as Indo-European, Asian and Pacific Islander, and other languages which include Native American languages, Hungarian, Arabic, Hebrew, and African languages among others (Ryan 1-3).
In total, the United States Census Bureau reports that approximately 381 different languages, including “Native North American languages,” are spoken within the United States (Ryan 2). The assumption that English is the only language of the American people is a fallacy that must be disregarded.
The Dignity of Language
In order to understand why a language policy must be made in support of a multilingual nation, we must understand that language is far from a simple or trivial human phenomenon. Rather, it’s a complicated verbal invention created to satisfy the human need for communication in a quick manner. The languages that are being spoken today are the products of millennia of usage and change that’s constantly evolving.
The effort required to learn a language is insurmountable. We don’t readily appreciate or understand our fluency that has been mastered over a lifetime. The magnitude of this complexity can be placed into terms as a function of human technological and linguistic effort:
“Ten linguists working full time for ten years to analyze the structure of the English language could not program a computer with the ability for language acquired by an average child in the first then or even five years of life” (Moskowitz 614).
It’s nothing but an act of self-deception to think that learning a language is easy. This usually stems from the fact that a majority of speakers learned a language when they were young and are likely to have no memory of the amount of effort it required to master a language to a level of fluency: “Language is a species-specific trait of human beings. All children…will acquire their oral language as naturally as they learn to walk. Many linguists assert that the human brain is prewired for language” (Daniels 4).
The pace at which language is learned is exponential. Language learning is complicated with many mechanics and functions that we don’t completely understand. It can be said that language learning for young children is a complex mystery of the mind: “It is not known how many processes are involved in language learning, but the few that have been observed appear repeatedly, from child to child and from language to language” (Moskowitz 616). The means by which language is learned may never be fully understood, but what little we do know is a system of reduction no matter the grammar: “Children learn the systems of grammar…by breaking each system down into its smallest combinable parts and then developing rules for combining the parts” (Moskowitz 616).
If we were to challenge ourselves today with learning a new language, we would quickly find ourselves overwhelmed by the amount of dedicated mental effort it will require to master to a level equivalent with a native speaker of said language:
“When adults set out to learn a new language, they know what is in store. They realize they will have to learn a new pronunciation, a new grammar, a new vocabulary, and a new style of language. They know they will have to spend many hours every day for years before they can call themselves fluent in a new language” (Miller and Gildea 643)
Without the principles afforded to us by grammar, it is impossible to have language that resembles anything that appears on this page. Instead, it would resemble bodily sounds and unintelligible utterances that are akin to animal communication (Bauer 79). Grammar change, such as language change, is a process that occurs within usage over a period of time. This end result creates a common usage that is “the ultimate and only court of appeal in linguistic matters” (Evans 271).
Language grammar is an intricate engagement of multiple systems of meaning that must be correctly used in order to be understood by another. A language’s grammar is not limited to the connotations of punctuation marks, tenses of verbs, and elements of style. Rather, grammar deals with systems that organize our language such as “phonology, syntax, semantics, lexicon, and pragmatics” (Moskowitz 616). All of these means come together to create a language that can be easily understood among different dialects thereof.
English Language Learners
The United States as a multilingual nation juxtaposed with having English as a lingua franca creates a need for individuals to learn the English language. The language that one speaks is an important part of one’s identity and should be respected. With the goal of both preserving an English Language Learner’s native language and aiding their English instruction, a policy of supporting bilingualism should be pursued.
The indelible rights of our people should be protected in respect to matters of language. Our nation’s cultural wealth lies in the diversity of its people which includes hundreds of languages beyond the lingua franca of English. We should strive to protect the rights of language minority speakers to help promote a multilingual nation where everyone has a fair and equal chance to pursue their endeavors.
Daniels, Harvey A. “Nine Ideas about Language.” Language: Introductory Readings. Ed. Virginia Clark, Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Beth L. Simon. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 3-20. Print.
Evans, Bergen. “Grammar for Today.” Introductory Readings on Language. Ed. Wallace L. Anderson and Norman C. Stageberg. 4th ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975. 269-76. Print.
Harlow, Ray. “Myth 2-Some Languages Are Just Not Good Enough.” Language Myths. Ed. Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Kindle ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 9-14. Print.
Inhofe, James M. “S.678-English Language Unity Act of 2015.” Library of Congress. United States Congress, 3 Mar. 2015. THOMAS. Web. 2 May 2016.
King, Steve. “H.R.997 – English Language Unity Act of 2015.” Library of Congress. United States Congress, 13 Feb. 2015. THOMAS. Web. 2 May 2016.
Miller, George A., and Patricia M. Gildea. “How Children Learn Words.” Language: Introductory Readings. Ed. Virginia Clark, Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Beth L. Simon. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 643-51. Print.
Milroy, James. “Myth 8-Children Can’t Speak or Write Properly Anymore.” Language Myths. Ed. Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Kindle ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 58-64. Print.
Moskowitz, Breyne A. “The Acquisition of Language.” Language: Introductory Readings. Ed. Virginia Clark, Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Beth L. Simon. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 613-42. Print.
Ryan, Camille. “Language Use in the United States: 2011.” American Community Survey Reports 22 (2013): 1-16. Print.