Friday, June 15, 2012

English Only?

Since the late 19th century, our country has held an ongoing debate over language (Barron, 2005). Arguments have ranged from a desire to unify our country to keeping the tongue of our current enemies out of our schools. The ACLU (2007) is completely opposed to "English only" laws, stating they "abridge the rights of individuals who are not proficient in English and... perpetuate false stereotypes of immigrants and non-English speakers" (p 1).

The following survey sheds some light on the thoughts and opinions that may be found on this topic. The group of 42 people surveyed was predominantly female, most between the ages of 24 and 34. All but two were raised in English-speaking homes. However, one grew up in a home where Russian was the primary language and another spoke both English and Korean at home. Similarly, most respondents do not have regular contact with non-English speaking communities, but a few regularly visit ethnic markets. This question was posed because those who regularly attend religious or civic activities in non-English languages may provide a unique point of view on the topic.

1. Which category below includes your age?

2. What is your gender?

3. What was the primary language spoken in your childhood home? (Please choose only one.)

4. Do you regularly go anywhere where English is not the primary language spoken (e.g., civic, community, or religious institution)?

The next few questions were asked to begin to understand both what respondents know about our nation's language history and how they feel about an official national language. When asked if there currently is an official language of the United States, the tally was almost right down the middle but leaning toward the correct answer: No. While a number of states, including Florida, have adopted English as their official language, there is no such federal statute (Lewelling, 1992). When asked if there should be a national language, though, about two-thirds responded affirmatively. 

As Barron (2005) points out, there is often confusion about these topics due to long-standing rumors about a vote that could have made German our official language. However, the vote was actually over whether laws should be translated into German as well so that those who had not yet learned English could understand them. The majority of respondents were not fooled, though, with 75% stating correctly that there had never been another language officially considered to represent the United States. Only three people believed German had once been considered as an official language.

5. Is there an official language of the United States?

6. Should there be an official language of the United States?

7. To your knowledge, has the United States ever considered adopting an official language other than English? (You may select more than one "Yes" answer.

The final three questions moved on to test more personal opinions about how non-English speakers should receive services in our country. Respondents were also permitted to leave comments for these questions which provides some additional insight. When asked if speakers of other languages should receive government services (the example of courtroom translation was provided) in non-English languages, approximately three-quarters responded in favor. Some believed that because these services may affect both citizens and non-citizens, it is still important to provide translation when necessary. As one respondent pointed out, "In cases where it is necessary for an individual to fully comprehend something, say for legal reasons, then every attempt should be made to make sure that person can, even if that means providing full translations."

Next, respondents were asked if students should be required to speak English only in our schools. This question was more evenly split. Just over half of respondents feel that students should not bear this requirement. The comments revealed a variety of opinions, though. Some equating such a requirement to racism and others demanding students speak English if they want to attend a U.S. school. One suggested special classes and tutors but pointed out that ultimately, schools are supposed to equip students for the real world, and students will likely need English in college and their careers. An educator commented, "I taught in Orlando in a school where 85% of the population spoke Spanish as a first language and was sad that those students were falling behind solely because they were learning English at the same time as the rest of their subjects. Many just gave up." This brings us to the next topic of bilingual education.

Bilingual education includes programs in which students learn both in their native language and English working on both second language acquisition and academic content (Peregoy & Boyle, 2008). Some opponents of such programs believe it slows non-English speakers' assimilation into American culture (ACLU, 2007). Most of the survey respondents did not agree with this though. Only about a quarter believe that bilingual education will hinder students in this way. One respondent pointed out that her own experience with education in a foreign country led her to the common sink-or-swim point of view. She believes the idea that she would have been taught in English while living in a foreign country would have seemed absurd to her educators. Another respondent also believes bilingual education discourages assimilation but at the same time wishes there were such programs for her own school-age children to learn English (such as the highly successful two-way immersion programs of Canada).

8. Should speakers of other languages be provided government services in non-English languages (e.g., courtroom translation)?

9. Should students be required to speak English only while in school?

10. Does bilingual education discourage assimilation?

In the end, I was surprised both by what I learned about the English Only Movement and the opinions of my peers. While the viewpoints appear to lean away from English only, the comments reveal that there are still strong viewpoints in favor of such restrictions. It would be interesting to see how responses evolved with the addition of more non-native English speakers or even with more males. As such, I will re-open the survey to continue observing the data. I will post a follow-up if there is much change in demographics or opinion.

Take the survey here: English Only Survey.

Comments are welcome!