Yesterday, on the day of his inauguration, Trump made some bold changes to the White House website. Topics such as “LGBT Community”, “Climate Change”, “Civil Rights”, and “Native Americans” are not to be found on Trump’s website. Links that appeared on President Obama’s website such as “Accessibility” and “En Español”, both of which made the site’s content available to a broader range of people, are also now absent. Being a language person, the exclusion of a Spanish language option on the website caught my attention, as this is an issue I’ve often had to address with monolingual English-speaking Americans.
“This is America, speak English!”
This is a sentence we’ve all heard, in some version or another, many times. I’ve overheard it being said to others and had it said to me. It’s a message that is usually conveyed with a lot of contempt, superiority, and conviction. But for an idea with so much fervor behind it, it is incredibly easy to rebut. I always ask the aggravated individual, “So you think people should speak our nation’s official language? What would you say is the official language of the United States?” The answer is inevitably, “English, of course!” At which point I inform them that they are wrong and that the U.S. has no official language designated at the federal level. I’m not saying that this miraculously changes people’s narrow views on language use, but it is fun to see them get frustrated and squirm, and maybe, just maybe, they will reconsider their misinformed opinion for a quick second.
The English-only movement in the U.S. is not new, but in recent years it has become inseparable from anti-immigration sentiment and right-wing politics. Up until now, no legislation has been successful in declaring English the one and only official language of the country, but with the state of our current government, it is something to be concerned about. The problem is not so much about promoting the use of the English language in official contexts – that happens quite naturally. The problem is that the English-only movement is no longer about communication or efficiency at all. It’s about erasing other cultural identities and imposing a cultural standard for how to be a “true American”. It’s about denying people’s right to live in this country and about the assertion of a cultural supremacy (in many cases, white supremacy). By excluding the Spanish language from the White House website, where it once was found, Trump is sending a clear message to the 41 million native speakers of Spanish in the U.S. (yes, that’s 14% of the population): you no longer belong in this country.
This sentiment regularly leads to acts of discrimination and violence. Arabic speakers have been removed from flights for speaking their language, a woman was assaulted in a restaurant in Minnesota for speaking Swahili with her family, and most recently a couple was harassed in a Los Angeles supermarket for speaking Greek with each other. The U.S. is getting to be a country where people hesitate to use languages other than English for the sake of safety. This is not to say that having English as the official national language will automatically increase such attacks, but if English is going to be official, it should be for constructive and inclusive reasons that benefit everyone, not to entertain a vocal minority’s delusions about their authority over this land.
Another thing to consider is that a change in the United States’ relationship to languages other than English could have a positive effect on the levels of tolerance in the country. A recent article speaks about the link between learning languages and increased tolerance. Learning and being exposed to a language other than your own helps in “gaining cross-cultural understanding”, “dealing with the unknown”, and “tolerance for ambiguity”. This all helps people to better navigate unfamiliar situations, feel less anxiety, and have more motivation and confidence. For a society where tensions and intolerance appear to be on the rise, it seems that we would be foolish to limit ourselves even further to just one language.
Thirty-one of the fifty states have already established official state languages. In every case it is English, but in some states indigenous languages have been awarded official status as well. Hawaiian is co-official with English in Hawaii, and in 2014 Alaska’s official language act was amended to include, alongside English, 20 indigenous Alaskan languages: Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian.
Official status for a language should not be something to fear, but it must be handled in the spirit of inclusion and not in order to erase the histories and identities of others. If the issue is approached with care and consideration, it could actually be of great help to many communities whose native languages have suffered under conditions of colonization and poverty. On that note, the next time I encounter “You’re in America, speak English!”, I think I’ll simply reply with this:
I protested Trump’s inauguration in D.C. yesterday. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t just sitting at home doing nothing while the mastermind behind so much intolerance and fear-mongering stepped into the spotlight. Our protest looked like America. People of every colour, gender, religion, and background were present. There were even some Trump supporters wandering around in red “Make America Great Again” hats. People on stage spoke passionately about their concerns for the future. They spoke in English, yes, but also in Tagalog, Lakota, and Spanish, and the experience was all the richer for it. One Trump supporter commented loudly that the Spanish speaker on stage should “learn English” because “this is America”. Well, “En Español” links can be removed from websites, but the people of this country, speaking the countless languages that they speak, are not going anywhere. Eventually that man will have to admit that an English-only America is a limited and obsolete aspiration. He will have to learn that to willingly engage with Spanish or any other language doesn’t threaten you – it makes you a better person.
Last year, when a Trump presidency was just a seemingly unlikely nightmare, I wrote a post about learning Arabic as an act of solidarity. Today I’d like to repeat that message and broaden it to include all languages. One of the U.S.’s greatest assets is the multiplicity of languages and cultures, yet there are those out there (and they’re feeling pretty confident right about now) who want nothing more than to homogenize our society. Speak your languages in public loudly and clearly! Don’t let aggression and intimidation silence you. If you see someone being harassed or attacked because of their language (or race or culture or identity), stand by them and help them to feel safe. Make it known that intolerance serves no one, and make it known in the language of your choice.