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  • Speak English, get out of jail free

    A Pennsylvania judge has sentenced three Spanish-speaking men to learn English or go to jail. The three, who pled guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery, will remain free on parole for a year, then take an English test. If they fail, then according to Judge Peter Paul Olszewski, Jr., it’s go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200. And they’ll stay in jail for the remaining 20 months of their two-year prison term.


    This isn’t the first time English has been used as punishment for a crime. In June, 1995, an Amarillo, Texas, judge ordered the mother of a five-year-old to speak only English to her daughter or lose custody of the child. Judge Samuel C. Kiser accused Martha Laureano of child abuse for speaking Spanish to the girl, who was about to enter kindergarten, adding that English was necessary for the youngster to “do good in school.” Even worse, the judge added, without English, Laureano’s daughter would be condemned to a life as a maid.

    When the story broke, there was a national outcry against this overreaching and misdirected decision. Judge Kiser, sensing that some fence-mending might be appropriate, apologized to maids. But he held resolutely to his English-only order.

    While Judge Kiser might have had trouble passing his Pennsylvania colleague's English test, judicial mastery of English grammar is not the issue here. Nor are the obvious free-speech concerns of cases which equate Spanish with child abuse, armed robbery, and other serious felonies.

    Instead I want to focus on the practice of a very American form of language abuse.

    For many years, young speakers of Spanish, Navajo, Chinese, and other minority languages in this country were beaten, humiliated, or given detentions if they used their first language in classrooms or on the schoolyard. Such punishments did not accelerate the students' adoption of English. As the average high schooler chafing under a language requirement will attest, you can't make someone speak a “foreign” language. Physical force and corporal punishment do even less to secure linguistic compliance.

    Nor can you effectively stop someone from speaking a language. After the United States entered World War I, anti-German laws swept the nation. In 1918 Gov. William Harding of Iowa issued a proclamation forbidding the use of any foreign language in public: on trains, on the streets, at meetings, in religious services, even on the telephone, then a more public instrument than it is now.


    Babel Proclamation detail

    Gov. William Harding of Iowa issued his so-called “Babel Proclamation,” banning foreign languages in public. Commenting on the ban, Harding added, “There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English. God is listening only to the English tongue.”

    During the same wave of xenophobia, a teacher in a Lutheran private school in Nebraska was fined twenty-five dollars for having his students sing German hymns during the school day, in violation of a state law forbidding foreign-language instruction before high school. This case led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), overturning a number of state laws that blocked the teaching of foreign languages.


    NY Times article about banning German

    The New York Times reports in 1918 on one of many attempts to ban German in the U.S.

    From time to time legislators concerned that not enough English was being spoken in the land have proposed making English the official language of the United States. In 1923 the State of Illinois made "American" its official language (in 1969 the law was quietly amended to make English the official tongue). The state language was symbolic, like the state bird or flower. The Illinois official language law, like Judge Kiser's decree, caused no one to speak English or abandon another language. Judge Olszewski’s sentence probably won’t do much to prevent recidivism, either.

    Nonetheless, with time, non-English speakers in this country, both criminal and law-abiding, do switch to English. Social pressure accomplishes what punishment, sanctions, laws and required courses do not: the children of minority-language speakers have typically become bilingual, and in turn their children tend to speak only English.

    Some pro-English advocates claim that while this may have been true earlier, today's minority-language users are different. Maybe so. But there are also some indications that the familiar three-generation pattern of shifting to English is being abridged. Today many of the children of immigrants are becoming English-only speakers, skipping the bilingual state altogether. In the Amarillo case, Martha Laureano spoke Spanish to her daughter to encourage her to become bilingual. She knew it was inevitable that the child would acquire English; she only hoped the girl would retain some of her Spanish along the way.

    American minority-language communities have learned over the past two centuries that despite their best efforts to preserve their culture, their children will abandon the parents' language in favor of English. There is a cruel irony here. American society urges immigrants to give up their native tongue and then bemoans the fact that a hopelessly monolingual America cannot compete effectively in the international marketplace.

    We need to see language as a resource, not impose it as a punishment. Nor should anyone be punished for speaking a language. Surely there is a more efficient and more humane way to deal with the boundless linguistic creativity and flexibility of children than the proclamations of governors and the rulings of judges would allow.

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