Column: Language and identity in modern America

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina talks to Lauren Englin, age 8, during a campaign stop at the Starboard Market Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, in Clear Lake, Iowa. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina talks to Lauren Englin, age 8, during a campaign stop at the Starboard Market Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, in Clear Lake, Iowa. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, as well as Sarah Palin, the former Governor of Alaska, raised concerns regarding the “official” language of the United States last week. America does not and has never had an “official” language. Though the politicians have increasingly pushed for a change to this law, such bastardization of U.S. policy cannot be permitted.

Though politicians are quick to wrongly label certain economic views or the decision to permit gay marriage throughout the United States as un-American, forcing English to be the United States' official language is as far from the spirit of the Constitution as a proposed law could be. 

This has always been a cosmopolitan nation. Thomas Paine, in The Rights of Man, said “[America is] made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages […] brought into cordial unison.” That is the America the founding fathers knew and fought to forge. While the notion of adopting an official language seems harmless, in actuality this move removes a key aspect of our immigrant nation.

Language is as integral to culture as cuisine, oral tradition and music. Immigrant communities arise to provide support and a sense of familiarity as immigrants find their feet in the U.S. A crucial part of that system is language. Though English is the most commonly spoken language in America, providing support for the native tongues of all our people is crucial to a sense of unity that spans any cultural or linguistic divide.

American culture is an ever-changing, amorphous reality. Making any portion of American culture legally superior or permanently fixed is backwards. Speaking English is not core to what makes someone American. To assume that is to paint oneself an ignorant bigot. 

In mandating an official language, politicians will heed to the call of the fringe, who find themselves uncomfortable with the beauty of a multi-lingual society. Hearing other languages spoken or seeing signs in a variety of languages should remind one that the American dream is still partially functioning. Immigrants, looking to flee oppression and economic hardship still look to America as a shining city upon a hill. 

As the American Civil Liberties Union reported, enforcing English as the official language of the United States would mean that “tax documents, voter guides and probably signage in federal buildings” would all be strictly in English, even for those who have not yet gained a full grasp of the English language. This would mean that the immigrants who pay taxes and dedicate their lives to this country would be left handicapped.

Legalese is hard enough for native English speakers to decode – mandating that federal documents be in English would only serve to handicap a large portion of this nation. 
     
America is going through a pronounced period of growing pains. However, to forget the central tenets of what defines America is to defy the founding fathers while promoting the bigotry and nativist attitudes that they detested. To label America a nation of immigrants, while mandating an official language is oxymoronic. The beauty of new immigrants is their language and culture. The victimized language that nativist and anti-immigrant activists use to shroud their bigotry must be exposed. Masquerading obscene legislation as “common-sense” to harm fellow Americans is contrary to the values of our founding documents. 

Earlier this week, Palin had a Freudian slip when she argued immigrants should speak “American,” not English. To equate English to some “American” language is to shun the all-important immigrant community. Conservative talking heads are projecting this image to the rest of the world – a skewed version of America. Promoting this legislation or notion with a deceitful lack of transparency only serves to vindicate those abroad that see America as a shell of its former self.

If a Senator gives a speech on the floor in Spanish or Mandarin, we should applaud, not shudder. Legislative action like the push for English as the official language is death by a thousand paper cuts for the immigrant community.

Those pushing this legislation understand that our founding documents clearly support immigration. Thus, they are searching for methods of slowly handicapping the immigrant community, until this once welcoming place appears sealed off to all those seeking shelter and hope.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu.