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  • English no longer the official language of New York's gas stations

    Now according to WHAM, channel 13 in Rochester, the New York State Attorney General’s office has reached a settlement: Hess will pay its former employees $94,000 and the company will adopt a non-discrimination language policy.  The Attorney General’s office hopes that this will send a message to businesses around the country: refrain from language discrimination – it’s the law.

    Businesses, from nonprofits like the Salvation Army to fast food restaurants like Geno’s Cheese Steaks, have been instituting English-only rules for employees (and, in some cases, for customers as well).  Schools too have joined the English-only movement, banning foreign languages on the school bus, as well as on the playground and in the lunch room. 

    “Why should I have to press ‘1’ for English or listen to people insulting me in a language I can’t understand?” asks the English-only crowd, who are only too eager to assume that anyone not speaking English must be bent on mockery. 

    Of course, the person who comes on the line after you press “1” for English is probably in Bangalore, which means that not only does the English-only crowd want everyone in America to speak English, they want everyone in the world to speak it too.  

    Back in Rochester, though, the Hess Corporation's concession has raised the hackles of the locals, who responded on 13WHAM’s web site with a brilliant display of rhetorical and grammatical skill in the language they want to see as the official language of the United States, the State of New York, Monroe County, the city of Rochester, the Ridge Road gas station, and the Beijing Olympics:

    1.    I am offended when I can tell that someone is talking in a foreign language (any language) just to be judgmental of a person so they don't know they are being talked about! And these are people that command respect without earning it. You want my respect, then respect me as a customer and stop jabbering when I am standing in line for any reason. It is just DISRESPECTIFUL no matter what language you are using.

    2.    Maybe all of us English speaking customers should get together and organize a boycott. It is apparent from this settlement that Hess does not respect us or our money. They could have chose to fight this (and probably would have won based on buisness reasons) but they chose to save a few dollars and in the process said screw our English speaking customers (who make up the majority of our consumers) and lets cater to the spanish speaking minority. You can't blame the court system for this one. This is corporate America selling us out so lets sell them out.

    3.    I think what most people get annoyed with and upset about is that, when for example i go to the store, i am next in line - i don't speak their language-just English, but while they are helping me and ringing the register, the clerk continues to speak his/her own language tih his/her co-workers behind the counter.

    4.    My dear spanish speaking friends - English is the business language of the world! All computers (no matter what language they display on the screen) are programmed in English. All airline pilots and air traffic controllers around the world speak English. Spanish is the language of third world countries whose people are oppressed, uneducated and suffer from a low standard of living. Name one thriving, prosperous Spanish speaking countrie –

    5.    Simple solution folks! Don't do business with businesses that have employees that converse in foriegn languages

    Some of these posters acknowledge that there are a few good Hispanics who are following the lead of earlier immigrant groups:

    6.    My great-grandparents insisted their children learn English. This was America not Italy (or Sicily) and the language here is English. They only spoke Italian to each other (and back in those days, the part of Rochester that was Little Italy to their neighbors), but all the kids growing up there were learning English. I have a young spanish speaking neighbor who only speaks spanish amongst his friends and family when they visit. His children do not speak a word of spanish.

    On the other hand, there are a few enlightened souls in Rochester who understand that immigration is difficult, that no one can learn a language in a few months, or even a few years, and that while language contact may lead to conflict, tolerance of difference can go a long way toward defusing tensions. 

    One person comments that English is guilty of the “crimes” attributed to Spanish:

    7.    Lets also not forget that English came from ONLY England. Ireland and Scotland had their own languages. England took over these countries and forced them to speak "English ONLY".

    And of course there's Bangalore.  English must be so prevalent there that the locals there probably have to press “2” for Kannada, assuming they can find someone there who also speaks the local lingo. 

    The English-only posts decrying the Hess settlement reveal that language is just stand-in for a deeper xenophobia, coupled with a fear that the United States may have already lost much of the clout it had on the world stage, or even in the computer revolution.  While the world’s web pages and email may have started out in English, today thanks to programmers around the world (Bangalore, anybody?) email and web pages can be in any language. 

    ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, recently announced that it may allow web addresses in non-Roman characters, for example Asian character sets or Arabic. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev responded by insisting that his country be assigned an Internet domain name in Cyrillic script as part of his campaign to promote Russian as a global language.  Russian websites would all end in .rf, with the RF, for “Russian Federation,” written in Cyrillic.

    Finally, a 13WHAM.com-poster points out what must be obvious to many readers,

    8.    The scary thing here is that most of you "English only speakers" can't even write a post using correct English. Why all the misspelled words and improper grammar? Seems to me most of the USA doesn't have a grasp on the English language to begin with.

    The message here seems to be, “don’t insist on English if you can’t use it yourself.”  Perhaps that’s not entirely fair, but neither is the post that epitomizes the English-only rant:

    9.    Learn English or go home to your native country.

    Which, translated into plain English, means, “If you don’t like it here, go back where you came from.  In fact, go back even if you do like it here.”

bribarker@hotmail.co.uk Jul 12, 2008 11:33 am

The situation indeed seems scary.

In London at the moment the situation seems more calm.  The Polish workers are starting to go home. Credit crunch, equals no building work, equals no language problem. Undecided

In the long-term however we will still have a problem which will not be sorted by either Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, or English.

What do you think about a language like Esperanto?


mjlee@hawaii.edu Jul 14, 2008 5:26 pm

I know I shouldn't be, but I am always surprised that linguistic discrimination seems to be a socially acceptable form of racism, and that people will openly make illogical statements, such as people speaking in a foreign language must be saying something bad about the person(s) who don't speak their language or that somehow it's the English Only speakers who are being discriminated against.

I'm curious to know if this is a problem in other English-speaking countries (that is, lawsuits, protests, news media sensationalism).  I saw the post about the Polish in the UK.  What about Canada, Australia, New Zealand, others?  Is this a symptom of the shift in English as the dominant global langauge? or a result of limited resources and immigration?  or a clash in the collective identity of "Americans" vis-a-vis global perception of "Americans" (or British, Australian, etc.)? 

I find the locals' reactions to the court's decision and Hess' settlement very disturbing.  After years of studying language issues, language attitudes, and diversity and composition, I feel like this incident shows that we haven't made much progress.  How do we disseminate what we know about language studies to the general public? How can society benefit from the scholarship produced in academia and/or does society benefit from scholarship now?  I'm not sure if the glass is half full or half empty.  Someone please tell me it's half full.

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