Mind Your Language

October 4, 2016

On September 21, 2015, Pennsylvania's only Latina representative, Leslie Acosta, had her microphone shut off when attempting to argue against a bill aimed at making English the state’s official language. This bill1, which is co-sponsored by  State Representative Representative Darryl Metcalfe, is State Representative Ryan Warner’s mission at “[...] contin[nuing] to look for every opportunity to cut wasteful government spending,” and to “encourage residents to learn English for their own benefit, not to use taxpayer dollars to support continual translation.” But there is no more need to make English an official language as there is to make blue the official color of the sky.

English-only laws, I argue, fall under the definition of linguicism. Linguicism refers to the discrimination on the basis of language. Language, like race, is closely linked to a person’s identity.  Sociologists posit that the Spanish language is central to Latino identity2. So, when a state like Pennsylvania, wants to make English the official language, it is telling the Latino community that now that the German language is not an issue Spanish is the new problem. Mr. Warner defends the need for such a bill in order to “cut wasteful spending” on “continual translation.”  A mission that looks for pennies under the couch when the proponent of the bill is a white nationalist. Besides, one does not need to be a savvy economist to know that when discussing savings and budget, a figure ought to be mentioned as to bring about a clear picture of the argument. The lack of mention of exactly how much savings English-only laws would bring about is not the only sign of the lack of rationality behind this proposal.

But this idea is not new nor is it a modern concept. In fact, in as early as 1750, this issue became a political and emotional one in our very own state of Pennsylvania when British settlers began to worry about the fact that one-third of their population were German speakers3. Since that time, proponents of English-only laws have sought to abolish minority languages wherever they were present such as in Puerto Rico, California, and in New Mexico. President Theodore Roosevelt articulated this belief in 1907: "We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.4" For too long and for far too many Americans, non-english speakers were not even considered human5. Consequently, in 1981 constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the country was unsuccessfully proposed: English Language Amendment6. This translates into a clear message to the immigrant community that they are not welcome in Pennsylvania, whether they speak English or not.

In Section 2, paragraph 5, the proposed bill reads that, “The English language has been our strongest bond to one another as fellow citizens and has contributed substantially to national unity and societal cohesiveness”7.  But to argue that language was the unifying component of this nation is to overlook the Constitution that the forefathers put together as a set of compromises. In fact, English-only laws, are divisive and humiliating -- it sends out a clear message to the immigrant community that they are not welcome. No mention of language was ever professed by the forefathers because it was not material to the unity of the states. In fact, and as State Representative Leslie Acosta said, this bill “is unconstitutional, it violates the Fifth Amendment right, and it also violates the 14th Amendment right.”


1 http://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/Legis/PN/Public/btCheck.cfm?txtType=....

2 See Joshua A. Fishman, The Rise and fall of the Ethnic Revival: Perspectives on Language and Ethnicity 71, 146 (1985).

3 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/books/review/speaking-american-a-histo....

4 T. Roosevelt. Works (Memorial ed., 1926), vol. XXIV, p. 554, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

5Shanahan, Daniel. We need a nationwide effort to encourage, enhance, and expand our student’s proficiency in languages. Chronicle of Higher Education 21 May 1989: A40.

6 This movement, however, is separate from the movement in states such as Pennsylvania to make Englisg its official language.


About Author(s)

Marisa is a third-year law student at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing certificates in Health Law and in Latin American Studies. She is interested in gender and race issues and how they affect immigration and immigrant communities. She also does research in public health issues. She has been contributing with articles for Panoramas since 2015.