So I’m sure we’re all familiar with policies such as “No pets allowed”, “Smoking is not permitted”, and “Bus Lane Only”. Signs like these are ones we can see posted and painted almost everywhere we go. They are procedures determined by certain people of authority that are ultimately produced to maintain order. But what if you walked into a store, entered a park, or drove on a busy street and were told that you were only allowed to speak English?
In recent times (from the mid-twentieth century to present-day), people of the united States have joined forces to protest the use of non-English languages in both public and private spaces. This group of people who followed what is known as the “English-Only” movement share sentiments against the use of foreign languages in election and educational environments. In the 1960s, the movement gained support primarily in response to governmental action of multilingual election practices. In both Kathryn A. Woolard’s piece, “Sentences in the Language Prison: The Rhetorical Structuring of an American Language Policy Debate” and Macedo’s “The Colonialism of the English-Only Movement”, people involved in the crusade called for English to become the official language of the United States at state as well a federal levels. The ideas of creating a monolingual society are closely tied to colonialistic practices, where a dominant force seeks to overthrow tendencies of inferior people (i.e. those who don’t speak English). Proponents of the “English-Only” period wanted to perpetuate certain aspects of culture and preserve English as the primary language. Woolard describes San Francisco’s Proposition O as a plan to urge amendments of the Voting Rights Act so that election materials were not required to be federally funded in other languages. The main focus for this proposal was on the notion that if an individual was unable to read/comprehend a ballot printed in English while voting, then they are completely uninformed and should not be given the opportunity to vote. Woolard also mentions that opponents of the proposition believe that the movement is driven by “a deeper anti-minority and anti-immigrant sentiment…”(126). Basically, many people who advocate bilingualism see this official English campaign as a xenophobic reaction to the use of languages other than English.
The image above illustrates the English-Only sentiment during the colonization period of America, where the colonizers have resorted to posting a “welcoming” sign to Plymouth Colony, with the subtitle “An English-Only Community”. The irony is that it is a welcome sign, inviting “outsiders” like the Native American to the right of the picture, but at the same time prohibiting the use of another language. The sign is described as the idea that those who do not speak English are not invited, and that a sign was needed in order to get this point across.
Centuries later, attitudes toward monolingualism in the United States continue to shift, especially from powerful figures like President Barack Obama. The following YouTube video comes from one of Obama’s speeches during his campaign in 2008, where he addresses the issue of English Only in America.
Here we see President Obama lean toward one side of the issue regarding the practice of multiple languages in the United States. He makes a good point about how foreigners who travel to this country usually know how to communicate in English, but when Americans travel to other foreign countries, we rely on the use of common sayings such as “merci beaucoup”. He puts an emphasis on the importance of knowing how to speak multiple languages; that this country should not just run on English. By providing immigrants with the opportunity to learn English, Obama believes that it will facilitate the process of assimilation for these foreigners. President Obama brings to the surface the idea that as immigrants learn to speak English, citizens of the United States should learn to another language as well (more specifically, Spanish). Controversy on this topic is evident in the comments that were made beneath the video by members of the YouTube community. Many people take the side that being bi- or multilingual is beneficial and advantageous. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who feel that English should be the official language of the United States, and that other languages don’t need to be learned. Some also insist that immigrants are not trying hard enough to learn English because this country already does too much to accommodate them and their “disability” of only speaking one language.
A few months ago, one of my friends had shown me a video of Tim James’s campaign for Governor of Alabama. We both immediately laughed at it after watching, thinking that this guy couldn’t actually be serious. The way he spoke about only speaking English in the state of Alabama was quite stubborn and condescending. Take a look and decide for yourself.
Here we see a typical prominent, Southern white male, advocating for the deletion of multilingual driver’s exams, and the establishment of English as the official language. In regards to speaking English he says, “If you want to live here, learn it!” He is very straightforward with his ideas about what saves money and “makes sense” – that is, only speaking and using the English language. While there are supporters of Tim James’s campaign, there are still many who find it absolutely absurd and comical. Watch this parody to see just how others have received Tim James’s proposal for English Only in Alabama.
Not only is this comedian playing off of Tim James’s corny and dramatic filming effects, he also portrays James as a die-hard American and English-speaker who wants to get rid of all non-English names and words. Although quite over-the-top, this video tries to make the point that this country naturally develops from the integration of other cultures. The creation of multicultural establishments and other “foreign” labeled items such as “Don’s Ristorante” and “Venti” are seen as un-American, things that disrupt society’s patriotism and unity. Obviously this parody goes to the extremes, but I think it tries to prove the idea that Tim James’s campaign commercial was a little extreme about the use of English only and an abolishment of other language practices. Could these really be ideals of the land of the free?