Taneytown, Maryland. Farmers Branch, Texas. Pahrump, Nevada. Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Bogota, New Jersey. These towns have just passed or tried to pass laws making English their official language. According to the AP, more than fifty other municipalities have recently considered English-only ordinances. It wont be long before Michelin publishes its Guide to Americas English-only towns and cities.
It’s not unusual for the federal government or the states to legislate language. But the last time English appeared on the city council agenda was during the big wave of immigration in the early 20th century, when many towns passed laws requiring all signs to be in English. While these laws clearly targeted the nation’s new immigrants, lawmakers argued that the regulations weren't dscriminatory, they were necessary so that fire, police and ambulance services could read addresses in an emergency. Citing similar health and safety issues, some local governments demanded that barbers and beauticians speak English before they could cut hair. Others required English for hunting and fishing permits. Some locales even imposed diction tests to bar as unfit those teachers whose English was perfectly fluent but who had even the faintest trace of an accent. They didn’t want “these people” inculcating bad speech habits in the nation’s children.
After World War I, the U.S. shut down immigration, the immigrants who were already here assimilated, and language issues faded. But language resurfaced after 1965, when the nation reopened its borders to large numbers of people who didn’t speak English. English-only laws proposed in the 1980s and 1990s appealed to voters’ idealism, stressing English as the key to understanding democratic values, as the glue that holds America’s diverse society together. State official language laws gave English the same symbolic status as the state bird or flower.
But the language laws we’ve been seeing for the past few years have become more openly xenophobic. Appealing to voters’ deepest fears and prejudices, they’re often tacked on as afterthoughts to anti-immigration measures. After 9/11 it’s become easier to complain about foreigners in public, but the targets of official language laws are not Middle Eastern terrorists, they’re speakers of Spanish. Federal and state governments are not eager to single out Hispanic Americans for restrictive legislation, but townships like Farmers Branch, which has seen a rise in Spanish-speaking residents, or Pahrump and Taneytown, with extremely small numbers of non-anglophones, have no compunctions about arguing that the simplest way to get rid of foreign languages is to get rid of the foreigners who speak them.
In addition to addressing issues of immigration and patriotism, many of today’s English-only laws add a new twist: a clause ensuring that no one will be discriminated against for speaking English. It’s not clear that such discrimination has ever taken place, or is even possible in a nation that, without a national language policy, has been more successful at turning its citizens into monolingual speakers of the national language than countries with strong official language laws. Today’s newcomers, whether they speak Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, German, or Russian, speak more English the longer they’re here; their children speak English fluently; their grandchildren speak English exclusively. Yet they’re the ones being discriminated against, not English speakers. Our towns should celebrate, not condemn, what we keep forgetting: we’re a nation of immigrants becoming a nation of immigrants.