Cast of Characters:

Enkidu (AKA Slim)
Beowolf (AKA Wolfie)
Blaze (AKA Blaze)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

You're in America! Speak English!

Señora Gomez* hobbled into the social security office in Arecebo, Puerto Rico, supporting herself on her grandson's arm.

She is an elderly middle-class woman, born and raised on the island. She's done her best to do right by everyone and has slowly sold off her land to cover her daughter's expenses and to pay for her grandson's education in the continental United States.

Upon approaching the window, she was informed by Juan Gonzales*, speaking in heavily accented English, that all official business of the United States Social Security Administration will be conducted in English.

Is there really any good reason for a Spanish speaker to demand that a Spanish speaker speak English, in order to get her Social Security check, which she's contributed to all her working life?

Puerto Ricans are often informed that they are in America and should speak English. However, what the Anglophones tend to ignore, is that the Puerto Rican's were speaking Spanish before the island was obtained by the United States and that most generations since then have been born, raised, and died with their native Spanish language. Why should they have to change?

Bilingualism is a tool for success. Ideally, everyone would be bilingual, but this is not possible, at least not at this time. Even if all of the children in school are taught, and learn, sufficient English, the older people would not be able to change, due to age related issues. Using the language as a barrier to services is reminiscent of the literacy tests imposed in the Deep South after the Civil War.

Also, if we take an example from Russian education in the Eastern Bloc countries, we can see that although all of the school children were required to take Russian, most hated it because of it being the language of the colonizer and never learned it well. Who are we to impose our language on others?

English Only is a bad idea.

*These are not really their names.


teresa said...

Is it really official policy that you can't apply for your social security benefits unless you do so in English??

Do you have an article where I can learn more about this?

Karen said...

Here's what the grandson in question wrote:
I don't think its a law since the US doen't have an official language. Also, as I told you it varies from town to town. But it's common.
So, it would seem that it's just a status thing now. However, it's something that shouldn't be encouraged. Passing an English Only law would make this a matter of law rather than just of common practice.

Court room proceedings are conducted in English, so interpreters are called in and Spanish speaking lawyers use dictionaries to find the right words. Juries are instructed to only listen to the official court interpreter testimony, even if they know better than the interpreter what the person testifying said. That I can document.

*Jamie* said...

I think that if English is accepted and spoken in most of America then it should be smart for all non speakers to learn the language. I just got off the bus coming from Chicago and a lady who didn't speak English very well found that she was on the wrong bus when the driver collected our fairs. We ended up having to make an extra stop and drop her off incoviencing everyone on the bus. I think it is important to provide interpreters for those Americans that don't speak English but i do absolutely believe that it should be required for citizenship. Maybe some minor basic classes for elderly individuals but it should be mandatory.

Anonymous said...

Puerto Rico has always been primarily Spanish-speaking, and I have no issue with Spanish as a primary or official language there, as long as the children are also learning English in school.

However, in the continental US, I really have a problem with the fact that so many people here have little to no grasp of English. (I live in New York City, so this is even more noticeable, and leads to difficulty in daily life sometimes.) I wouldn't move to Germany or Spain without trying to become fluent in German or Spanish.

I think it is a problem that people can move to the USA and stay in their own social "pocket" in which they don't have to use English in daily life. This leads to MORE division between nationalities in America. I'm all for diversity, and enjoy the variety of cultures that America is comprised of, but people who limit themselves to the tongue of their former nations will only serve to DIVIDE us in the future.

This is why immigrants should be teaching their children English. I have no problem with retaining one's own culture, language, and identity, but they should learn to adapt to the new one as well.

Anonymous said...

This is the same poster... I just wanted to add that I do think all Americans should learn at least one foreign language. I myself have studied four (only 2 have really stuck, but I made the attempt). Ultimately, the more people can communicate easily with each other, the better. But if you adopt a new country as your home, shouldn't you learn its language and customs?

Karen said...

Hi Anonymous:

I think that you and I agree. I think that people are best served both in terms of integration and their own individual well-being if they are at least bilingual, with one of the languages being that of the host country!

I do think, however, that it's bad to have the kind of linguistic policies that I mentioned in the original post, since they are often racist policies hidden in linguistic trappings.