Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Oxygen of Civilization?

Brittney Gerald

In her article “Sentences in the Language Prison: The Rhetorical Structuring of an American Language Policy Debate”, Kathryn A. Woolard claims that “a movement against bilingualism and for ‘English only’ in the public sphere has been growing in the United States for the past several years” (268). She explains how Proposition O urged for an amendment of the “federal Voting Rights Act so that the city and county of San Francisco would no longer be required to provide election materials in any language other than English” (270). This may seem surprising, since San Francisco, with a high minority population, prides itself on its diversity and tolerance. This proposition explicitly bans the incorporation or inclusion of non-English languages in the voting process. Woolard argues that although ideologies of xenophobia and status politics may partially explain English-only rhetoric, these “can be overly simplistic, missing important aspects of political and cultural processes” (270). After all, she claims, even many liberals support English-only policies.
            Woolard refers to the concept of “bossism” as an argument for Proposition O. Some argue that bilingualism allows for candidates to take advantage of the “uninformed” masses who ignorantly follow the “leader” speaking the language comprehensible to them. This concept is based on ideological assumptions “that English is the language of political information”, campaigns are held in English, “print is the medium of such information”, and “lack of literate proficiency in English entails lack of aural proficiency” (Woolard 272). These assumptions are problematic in that they prescribe a natural or inherent superiority to the English language. In fact, in Proposition O rhetoric, minority languages become “prisons”, and “minority leaders the jailers” (Woolard 274). They argue that removing minority languages from the ballot “liberate[s] minorities and protects their real rights and interests” (Woolard 274). Of course, this argument not only relies upon assumptions about the “real” rights and interests of minority groups, but it prescribes these motivations to them. Ironically, in discourse of protecting minority groups from losing their “voices” through bossism, English-only promoters are essentially giving them a voice by telling them what their interests are and/or should be. 
            In the following news clip, a panel of Senators are asked if they think English should be the official language of the United States:

Only one Senator raises his hand in favor of English as the official language, immediately defending himself by emphasizing, “That doesn’t mean we can’t encourage other languages”. He even points out his ability to speak French and English to “prove” his support of bilingualism through interactions and on a personal level. However, he bluntly proclaims, “We speak English” and declares, “The official language of the United States is English”, as if to say that the official language is already English, so we might as well label it accordingly. He presents his argument as a mere deduction of logic and facts, yet it ignores the possible consequences for minorities and the significant impact this labeling would have on this country.
            Hilary Clinton, however, offers a different logistical perspective that points to these possible consequences. Clinton refers to the political distinction between a “national” language and an “official” language. She favors the present status of English as the national language, but not as the official language, because this would mean that “in a place like New York City, you can’t print ballots in any other language, that means you can’t have government pay for translators in hospitals.” Clinton therefore opposes English as the official language, because of the conflicts and difficulties it may create for language minorities on a practical level. She points to conflicts within the public and political sphere, including voting rights and access to healthcare information.
            President Obama pushes the argument even further with a new perspective. He begins with the bold assertion, “This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us”. He interprets English-only policy debates as divisive, not promotions of unity. He also implies that the question of English as an official language is irrelevant. He makes the bold statement, “Everybody is going to learn to speak English if they live in this country”. He says this as if in response to claims that people will not learn English; but the Senator in favor did not express this concern or fear in his argument. He even encouraged people to speak additional languages. Obama therefore seems to be drawing upon arguments that he knows already exists in English-only discourse. He states, “The issue is not whether or not future generations of immigrants are going to learn English…The question is how can we come up with both a legal, sensible immigration policy”. Obama immediately reframes the question of English as an official language to be about immigration policy. In fact, he even calls the initial question a “distraction” to discussions about immigration, as if the two are inevitably intertwined, and as if one acts as a disguise for the other. In reframing the question, Obama is suggesting that questions about language policy in America stem from fears about immigration. His interpretation of the question, and unprovoked emphasis that everyone will inevitably learn to speak English, suggests that promoters of English as an official language perceive immigrant and minority languages as a threat to the English language and, therefore, to the nation as a whole.
            The three senators offer distinct perspectives within the English-only debate Woolard’s article describes. Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o values multilingualism and strongly opposes English-only legislation:

In fact, Ngugi argues that interactions between different languages may even be essential to society: “I’d like to think of the contact between languages and cultures and peoples…as the oxygen of civilization”. He says this is the reason why he writes in African languages, in order to “open the space” for all languages that have been historically marginalized. It is a tactic that challenges language hierarchies by assuming an inclusive stance. He raises the idea of hidden knowledge in these languages, referring to an unknown “treasure”. This raises the idea that different languages go beyond translation; they offer new ideas, insights, and knowledge that could be useful and important. Ngugi asserts that “there is no contradiction between having a language of national or international…communication…and thriving languages and cultures that learn from one another…through translation among themselves, but also they’ll find another meeting point in the languages that…have a global reach or national reach and soon there could be many ways in which languages and cultures contact and learn from each other”. He draws upon ideas about globalization as a beneficial phenomenon. Ngugi’s perspective values the inclusion of all languages and cultures within both the public and private sphere, insisting that it will only be beneficial in the long run.  

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