Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Linguistic Oligarchy: The daily ramifications of English only policies

Cathleen McCaffery


I stumbled across this blog posting about street signs in New York this weekend and began to think about the conversation we had in class based off of Kathryn Woolard’s article “Sentence in the Language Prison: The Rhetorical Structuring of an American Language Policy Debate.” We were talking about where language policies make sense in everyday American life. Consumer merchandise (board games, advertisements, stores etc…) are all marketed in English. Stores in iconic American locations like Times Square are defined by English signage. Although America has no official language, iconic locations, brands, stores, etc… are all represented in English. English obviously prevails above all other languages in the U.S. in the consumer sphere although there are approximately 337 languages spoken throughout the country (wikipedia). It makes sense, but as the world and America become increasingly more globalized, the inclusion of languages other than English is becoming both more necessary and more logical. The important question I think we have to ask is, to what extent? Should signs be in Spanish and English because those are the two most widely used in America? Yes. But that still leaves out many others, and with language and signage, someone is always bound to get left out. But whose decision is that to make? Voters? The Government? Woolard states that “English Only” policies in both the public sphere and school atmospheres reflect a xenophobic attitude towards immigrants and a need to protect the coveted white, European, wealthy, English speaking, male minority that holds most of the power in every sector of the U.S. economy, government etc… But as this group becomes an increasingly smaller minority, are we approaching a linguistic oligarchy? Woolard calls this status politics, when one social group, usually the dominant one (previously or currently) seeks to reaffirm their power and prestige once they feel it is being threatened. English is seen as something that might be lost, with Spanish and Spanish speaking immigrants infringing on this sacred linguistic space, officials are all the more weary and ready to enforce harsh English Only policies and programs like No Child Left Behind. These programs serve as covert efforts to eliminate Spanish from new generations of immigrants. This dominant minority is asserting its power symbolically through language in order to cope with the threat of multi-culturalism and bilingualism or even multi-linguialism, something America should be proud of and incorporate rather than seek to crush and obstruct.

According to the New York Daily News and this blog, New York bureaucrats plan to enforce National Legislation by spending $27.5 million dollars to replace the current street signs, which are in all capital letters, with lowercase signs. This legislation must legally be put into effect by 2018. With the current economy, this seems like a costly and ridiculous use of almost $30 million dollars. And what are the benefits? Supposedly this is supposed to make signs easier to read for drivers and less confusing for pedestrians as well. If someone can read English, they should be able to read in both upper and lower case, the problem is that many New Yorkers are not able to read in English in the first place! What does it matter how the letters look? This money could be spent much more wisely, incorporating Spanish into street signs, or directed towards something more worthwhile that could affect non-English and English speakers alike.
Although Woolard focuses on language use and English only policies in regards to politics and voter information, her ideas transcend to English only policies and English use in the wider sphere of everyday American life. Street signs seem like something taken for granted, yet their importance is key for transportation and simply getting from place to place on a daily basis. They are an essential component in the journey from home to work, work to school etc… This seems like an overlooked fact, yet something that is very important in the everyday lives of Americans, and New Yorkers in this example. But what better American city than New York, a culturally and linguistically diverse language metropolis where people from all different backgrounds come together to cohabit a quintessential American city, to start incorporating Spanish and other languages? In talking about voters, Woolard states that Proposition O, an argument for an amendment of the Voting Rights Act in order to provide voting materials in English only and not other languages. Woolard brings up the argument used, of the “uniformed voter,” that states citizen’s who cannot comprehend a ballot in English are unable to comprehend the candidates and issues and should not be voting. Can the same be argued in regards to street signs? Is someone who cannot read street signs in English unable to walk to the subway or unable to comprehend the process of traveling from Manhattan to Queens? This thought is based off of the idea that English holds some intellectual privilege over other languages. This is an absurd concept for many reasons. Translations of literary and other works are read in schools, academics from other countries are widely received in America and, scholars and intellectuals who do not speak any English have existed before English was even a language. This idea that the ability to speak English somehow gives the speaker a greater knowledge of politics or other things is based in no factual truth and in fact makes no sense if you think about it for more than a second. Incompentency stems from a lack of intelligence or from ignorance, something that has nothing really to do with language at all, but with time, genetics, location, income etc…

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