On Tuesday, Fox News published an article by Dr. Manny Alvarez titled “English-Only Bills Are Not Unfair to Immigrants“. A friend posted it to her Facebook page, and I’ve been stewing about it ever since. I knew as soon as I read it that I disagreed strongly, emphatically, with his stance but it’s taken me a few days to put together coherent thoughts on a topic that provokes strong feelings on both sides of the debate.
Dr. Alvarez is Cuban-American, so Fox News certainly hit gold in getting him to take this stance–he’s been there, a foreigner in America, and he chose to learn English. How can anyone argue with him? Well I’m going to. But before I begin, to stave off comments that imply otherwise, I will state the obvious: I believe that people who come to live in the United States should learn English. However, I also believe that the United States continually goes about achieving this end in the worst ways possible and the bills currently in process in my home-state of Indiana and Minnesota are perfect examples.
The Indiana & Minnesota bills both mandate that all government documents are provided in English only. The Minnesota bill goes one step further, by disallowing those who don’t understand English well enough to read the documents access to a translator to assist, for example, with completing a driver’s test. This makes it nearly impossible for people who do not speak English to get a driver’s license, apply for legal status in the US, properly pay their taxes, or apply for any of the scant government services that might be available to help them integrate into American society. People who introduce and support this type of legislation also seem to believe, as Dr. Manny does, that immigrants need to integrate. Why then do they make that harder instead of easier?
Where Dr. Alvarez, along with many others who discuss this topic, get it wrong is in the assumption that English-Only bills such as these encourage immigrants to learn English. He writes that those who support these bills believe “special accommodations made for immigrants make them less motivated to learn the language and irritate those who do speak English.”
In my own recent experience living in a country where I do not speak the language, the exact opposite is true. I did not know a single word of Finnish when I emigrated from the United States to Helsinki in November of last year. Even after three months, I am still struggling with the difficult language and can barely speak a sentence in Finnish beyond saying hello or wishing someone a Merry Christmas. And yet, I am trying to learn the language, despite the number of people who speak English here (trust me, it’s a greater percentage of folks than speak Spanish in the US), the fact that most of the documentation I’ve had to fill out to become a legal residence here has been in English, and that my translator has never once been barred from attending any sort of meeting with me or prevented from helping me fill out a document.
Integrating with a new culture is incredibly difficult, stressful, and challenging even when you have all the amazing resources my family has had access to since our move. I have found the Finnish people, both on a personal and a governmental level, to be welcoming and helpful, but it has still been hard. I can’t imagine trying to do this in a place where it’s against the law not only for people to provide me with documents in my native language, but even to help me translate them when they are not in English. It’s that kind of frustration and alienation that immigrants entering Indiana and Minnesota will face if these laws are passed. Would anyone like to make a wager on whether those discouraged individuals are going to feel up to the challenge of learning English, or whether they’re more likely to retreat to the comforts of others who speak their language in the local community and insulate themselves from the frustration and alienation of trying to manage in a foreign language without assistance?
Dr. Manny talks about immigrants showing respect to their new home by learning the language, but I would argue that America should show some respect to its visitors before expecting it in return. Also note that, even when working hard to show respect by learning English, these folks have to go to work or school and carry on with their lives in the interim between entering the country and mastering the language, and that’s not a quick process. Becoming fluent doesn’t happen overnight. Even those who master conversational English relatively quickly (we’re still talking months at a minimum here, not days) have a long road ahead before they can understand the subtleties of business/legal English. Frankly, many native speakers struggle with the legalese in the very documents that the supporters of these bills expect non-native speakers to understand.
It is my sincere hope that these bills won’t pass. If they do, however, I fear they will accomplish the exact opposite of what lawmakers intend.