Responses accepted in any language

E. J. Dionne offered a howler yesterday, attacking the demagoguery aimed at immigrants. If only he’d been correct.

… I can’t stand the demagoguery directed against immigrants who speak languages other than English. Raging against them shows little understanding of how new immigrants struggle to become loyal Americans who love their country — and come to love the English language.

As it considered the immigration bill last week, the Senate passed an utterly useless amendment sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) declaring English to be our “national language” and calling for a government role in “preserving and enhancing” the place of English.

There is no point to this amendment except to say to members of our currently large Spanish-speaking population that they will be legally and formally disrespected in a way that earlier generations of immigrants from — this is just a partial list — Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Norway, Sweden, France, Hungary, Greece, China, Japan, Finland, Lithuania, Lebanon, Syria, Bohemia, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia were not.

Immigrants from all these places honored their origins, built an ethnic press and usually worshiped in the languages of their ancestors. But they also learned English because they knew that advancement in our country required them to do so.

There is certainly demagoguery aimed at immigrants. Language is certainly part of that. But that doesn’t prove a correlation, tying the opinion of both arguments into one neat xenophobic bundle. Sen. Inhofe’s bill may dream of disappearing ethnic presses and English-only worship. I doubt it, but it’s possible. However, demanding English language skills is not the same as expecting immigrants to stop using their native languages.

As an example, if I move to Germany, I know I will need to learn German to function. That’s reasonable. What is not reasonable is for me to expect German government documents in my native language. (That English is a universal language for government is acknowledged, but not detrimental to this argument.) They’d be helpful for me to have, but it’s not the average German citizen’s responsibility to provide them for me. That same standard should apply in the United States.

Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, introduced an alternative amendment to Inhofe’s that also passed the Senate. It declared English the “common and unifying language of the United States” while also insisting on the existing rights of non-English speakers “to services or materials provided by the government” in languages other than English. As Salazar understands, the best way to make English our unifying language is to avoid making language a divisive national issue.

Sen. Salazar’s bill could be an improvement. Or not, if it implies an “existing right” to services or materials provided by the government in languages other than English. This shows more about Mr. Dionne’s expectation of what government should do (all things for all people, it seems) than it shows any alleged disdain for non-English speaking immigrants. We’re arguing for similar immigration policies, with different understandings of how to reach a solution. Mr. Dionne argues for big government, whereas I prefer limited government. We believe, and demand, that immigrants possess individual ambition and responsibility. English language expectations are consistent.

4 thoughts on “Responses accepted in any language”

  1. When I read “howler,” the first thing that came to my mind was Harry Potter. I really need to cut back on the pop culture blogs and read some news.
    Oh, who am I kidding?

  2. I’ve given the idea some thought, and perhaps people who insist on services and documents in languages other than English could pool resources together and translate information themselves. I bet this would be much cheaper than government-sponsored and -funded services.

  3. You can take the German-only argument to the next level.
    Switzerland nominally has four “official” languages. Nevertheless, all government business, at least at the federal level, is conducted exclusively in German. And everyone is expected to be fluent in German, regardless of the local langauge.
    Compare that to Canada, where everything is bilingual and the country is tearing itself apart as a result.

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