Saturday, December 10, 2005

¡No hables español en la escuela!

Zach Rubio, a 16-year old student at the Endeavor Alternative School in Kansas, was suspended for speaking Spanish in school. According to Rubio, the incident that got him in trouble was outside of the classroom when he responded "No problema" to a classmate that asked to borrow a dollar. (Washington Post: Spanish At School Translates to Suspension). School administrators say it's not the first time Rubio and others had been admonished for speaking Spanish in school.

The intrusion of other languages into official government or business transactions is becoming increasingly problematic due to the surge in the Hispanic population in the US. One of the most frequent complaints our marketing department receives, for example, is that the customer is asked to choose between English and Spanish when making an ATM transaction. Despite it not being written into the constitution, the language spoken in the US is English and many customers are irritated by the intrusion of Spanish into daily business. I'm one of them.

Government forms are now available in Spanish. Any voice menu system you encounter (which is another pet peeve of mine) will almost always force you to choose a language. English is no longer being treated as the de facto language in government and business in the US, and I do view that as a problem

Language can be one of the most divisive cultural aspects in a society. By not forcing immigrants to learn English, we inadvertently create isolated pockets of diverse cultures that have nothing to unify them beyond the color of the money in their pockets. If you want to see what that cultural isolation can do in the extreme, look no further than Iraq. There you have three distinct cultures that loath each other and at any moment are a gunshot away from civil war. That's been true for centuries there.

My view on language is that English should be written into law as the official language in the US. All government forms should be written only in English. Business in the US should be transacted in English. Obtaining citizenship should require English proficiency. In short, there must be an incentive for anyone that wishes to live in the US to learn English.

As to young Zach Rubio, however, I'd say he was a victim of an administration that took a school policy a bit too far. While I fully support the idea that only English should be spoken in the classroom, it does not make sense to police the halls and restrooms to that extreme. In fact, it's counter-productive. Given the six-hours a day students spend in the classroom, that's plenty of language immersion, sufficient to develop English proficiency in non-English speaking students. In Rubio's case, he is fluent in English, and as such has no need for English immersion. A bit of common sense on the part of the administration would be in order.

The goal should not be to eliminate Spanish from our society. What language a family chooses to speak in the home, among friends, or while out socializing is their business. Rather, the goal should be to establish English as the unifying factor that unites all of the diverse cultures that comprise this great nation. Language should not be a wall that separates cultural districts, but that is what is happening today.

I should note here that studies of the past show that this is, first and foremost, not a new debate. The same arguments were used when Irish were the heaviest wave of immigration and again when Italians immigrated to the US in droves. English was not in danger of being replaced then and it is certainly not in danger of being replaced now. What studies show is that first generation immigrants have a very difficult time learning the new language. Second generation immigrants are typically bi-lingual, and by the third generation they are exclusively English speaking. So don't worry about English being replaced by Spanish.

What is different this time around, however, is the universal drive both in government and business to provide documentation and services in other languages. That was extremely isolated during the last major US immigration wave, which meant that second generation Americans - typically children who were frequently used as translators for their parents - had a strong incentive to learn English. (Children also learn a new language easier than adults.) We are removing that incentive, and that does have me concerned.

I suspect the debate over language in schools will not end anytime soon. For the moment, however, let's remember to support the diverse cultural aspect that makes the US the world's melting pot, but at the same time let's provide that single unifying element that makes all of those cultures part of America: English.


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