"We speak English, not Spanish."
Withering under the glare of the local barista, my friend and I momentarily stopped our Spanish lessons and waited until we’d left the coffee shop to resume them.
Ironically, this exchange occurred in El Paso, Texas, a city that lies on the U.S.-Mexico border and is 82% Hispanic. Here, Spanish is woven into the fabric of everyday life; in downtown El Paso, you’re more likely to hear Spanish than English on your morning jog. And yet, it was in this very city that I had heard so many disparaging remarks about one’s ability to speak a specific language.
The issue of English language requirements in immigration reform is constantly being toyed with by politicians and citizens alike. The current U.S. system has a basic English language requirement as part of the naturalization process, but not for visas. And yet, when the issue comes up now and again, many demand an English requirement for anyone wishing to stay in this country for an extended period of time. That argument is ridiculous and, frankly, xenophobic, for a variety of reasons.
First of all, the U.S. has no official national language. Some states have written laws on official languages and many recognize more than one de facto language (such as Louisiana and Maine, which recognize both English and French), but the fact remains that there is no such legislation on the federal level. It seems difficult to reconcile forcing immigrants to learn English when we do not recognize it de jure.
Second, the U.S. is a country of immigrants. How can we proudly proclaim that we will accept those "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," if we’re going to immediately smother them with rules and regulations on how they must behave? Our ideology states that we accept those willing to work hard, and English-speaking ability is no indicator of moral character. In fact, in many other countries, learning English is a privilege afforded only to those who can pay for private education, making an English language requirement highly elitist.
English-speaking ability is also not an indicator of one’s mental capability. One’s ability to vote or to understand issues of national significance is not affected by language and thankfully, the Voting Rights Act provides translated ballots for areas with more than 5% of the population speaking the same native tongue with limited English proficiency. This is not a waste of taxpayer money — it is a necessary action for a country that values diversity.
Third, no other language poses any kind of threat to English or English-speakers in the U.S. So much of the rhetoric in this debate seems fueled by fear — fear that those speaking English are being marginalized — when that couldn’t be further from the truth. English has, and always will be, the primary language of America, with 95% of the population speaking it fluently. In addition, studies show that close to two-thirds of immigrants speak English "well" or "very well," and many pick it up while living in the U.S. Immigrants that maintain their native languages, most in addition to learning English, are preserving some part of their cultural heritage, and that is something we should celebrate.
In my week in El Paso, I saw signs everywhere that were written in both Spanish and English, and Marco Rubio’s bilingual response to the State of the Union is still fresh in my mind. These examples of bilingual-ness are diversity in action, beautiful reminders that we live in a country made up of many different kinds of people, all equal under the law. Let’s keep it that way.
It’s time the U.S. stopped insisting that the world speak our language, and it’s time we try to communicate in theirs.