The Politics of English

Recently I learned a lesson to stay out of political discussions and just learn more about my own profession which has plenty of facets that I can spend my time investigating. But when politics comes to my profession, I suppose I can add my two cents to the conversation.

Tonight, President Bush gave his first oval address on a topic besides the war on terror or Iraq. It was on immigration. This is something to which my profession as an English teacher is inextricably linked. When the President speaks for over a paragraph about the English language, the professionals who teach it should take notice. That is an indication of many people behind the scenes in policy think tanks and organizations who are working to make it happen. Here is what the President said in his speech on Monday night in the USA:

Fifth, we must honor the great American tradition of the melting pot, which has made us one nation out of many peoples. The success of our country depends upon helping newcomers assimilate into our society, and embrace our common identity as Americans. Americans are bound together by our shared ideals, an appreciation of our history, respect for the flag we fly, and an ability to speak and write the English language. English is also the key to unlocking the opportunity of America. English allows newcomers to go from picking crops to opening a grocery, from cleaning offices to running offices, from a life of low-paying jobs to a diploma, a career, and a home of their own. When immigrants assimilate and advance in our society, they realize their dreams, they renew our spirit, and they add to the unity of America.

Keywords and phrases in this paragraph are: melting pot, assimilate, advance, opportunity. To me, it seems like what the President is saying is that English is the language of power and anyone who wants access to that power must learn it. I know there are people in the USA who want to assimilate into what they see as America and there are others who are there to take advantage of an opportunity that doesn't require English fluency and then hopefully go back to their own country without assimilating. And there are those who want both: to gain citizenship, maintain their own language and culture, and stay in the USA. Can we include these kind of people in the label "American"?

I think we already do. The Amish of the Midwestern States maintain their own language and culture with varying degrees of contact with mainstream Americans. What about people who trace their ancestry to the Spanish settlers of Florida, and the states considered to be the Southwest? Are they entitled to their language as part of their identity? True, the USA annexed these areas from Spain and settled them with its own citizens. But the culture still remains. Great Britain received New France in the 1760s. This would later become Canada with its French-speaking province of Quebec. Canada has two official languages, English and French. Can we recognize both languages and have unity as a nation? Canada has 7.1 million people who speak French at home (24% of total population in 2001). The USA has 28.1 million people who speak Spanish at home (10% of total population in 2000), yet no official language. Is it about the number of people or the percent? Why does the USA drag its feet on declaring one or more official languages? It could be a matter of resisting enforcement of something that is sufficiently being pandered by other social forces to keep English as the de facto language of power and the others at bay. One of those forces, to me, is the concept of the USA as a "melting pot".

The idea of "melting pot" to me is about homogenizing. The term was coined in 1908 by a playwright whose play featured a Jewish man falling in love with the daughter of an anti-Semitic Russian. They could overcome their differences thanks to the melting pot. The term persists to this day, but the diversity of our country has grown beyond the Europeans who came in the early part of the 1900s. When immigration was reformed in the 1960s, many more people from every other continent could come to the USA. The question now is: with so much more diversity of people and beliefs in the USA, does the melting pot metaphor still embrace what it means to be American?

The funny thing is, that Mexicans, Argentinean, Venezuelans, and other New World citizens will argue that they're American, too! The USA hasn't cornered the market on the term because we've got two continents named for America.

I'm concerned about what President Bush means by, "English is the key to unlocking the opportunity of America." There are some who want to make English the official language of the USA and therefore exclude any government effort to translate official documents into other languages. In essence saying, "Hah! Now you have to learn English because there's no other way to access information and therefore power." I'm an Applied Linguist who knows that children who are literate in their home language go on to become more proficient users of a second language. I know that language is identity. I know that first generation immigrants have diverse capacities and motivations for learning a second language. I know that the children and grandchildren of those first immigrants have different attitudes and capacities. So to insist on English literacy for every first generation citizen of the USA isn't respecting the diversity of what eventually makes us American through a process that takes place over many generations.

So my position as an English teacher is not to be an agent of American assimilation towards immigrants. My position is to motivate my students to learn English while respecting each one's language learning history. Language is power, there is no getting around that. The question is: are we comfortable sharing that power with other language speakers and still be able to identify ourselves as (United States of) Americans?

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