“English Only” is a political movement aimed at establishing English as the only permissible language allowed in use of all government legislation, communications, forms, and actions.  The movement’s overarching goal is to set English as the United State’s official language, not necessarily eliminating the use of “foreign” languages but definitely undermining them.

The most recent event related to English Only took place in Nashville, Tennessee.  The amendment put forward by English Only advocates was voted against on January 22nd, 2009. Fortunately, the proposal was denied.  The proposed charter amendment 1 and 2 basically read: no person shall have a right to government services in any other language other than English. Over 40,000 voters were against ratification of the amendment while about 30,000 voters were for the amendment.

I am particularly bias against this event because it greatly affects me as an immigrant who is still making a place for myself in the United States. When I first got off the flight at Dulles Airport from Korea six years ago, I felt like I needed to change my clothes, not because they were dirty or anything but because I felt like I needed to prepare in becoming a new person. The flight was thirteen hours long, I was tired but pleased to feel a sense of nostalgia of the only other trip I made to America eleven years ago.  Of course that time I came as a tourist visiting family, this time I came as an immigrant.  There was a strange intermingling of the tasty, buttery sensation of America I remembered feeling as ten-year-old girl and the new anxiety and gathering of strength I was feeling as an immigrant.  When I landed at J.F.K airport back in the summer of 1992, I saw popcorn and delighted in its smell.  Eleven years later at Dulles, I could smell the popcorn again.  I knew things were completely different now, to start off with I was in an entirely different airport. Yet I kept going back to the same feelings I felt as a kid, as a tourist, full of giddy delusions of America.  It wasn’t until I remember that I wasn’t going back that it hit me. I booked a one-way ticket, not round-trip that summer in 2003.

Six years later, I became a naturalized citizen of the United States.  I pledged an oath of allegiance and denounced any loyalties to South Korea. I had a new motherland now. For the ceremony, speaking the oath of allegiance in English was worthwhile. It bound me with the other naturalizing citizens in the ceremony with me. But I knew that these English words were probably just as hollow, if not more, to many of these new citizens.  If there was any real oath to be pledged, it would be said in our mother tongues.  Even though the English Only proposition is limited to the communications and actions of government, it sounds, to me, like the first comers bossing around new comers. Learn or Leave despite the nature of the United States, the diversity, which should be celebrated not delineated. The citizens of the United States are all from different countries and should be respectful for the freedom being sought for by all who come.

If advocators for the English Only movement are concerned with immigrants adopting English and assimilating then they should advocate further support for government interpreters and foreign language programs because being in the dark helps no one.  If being able to communicate is the issue then the communication must come from both sides.  One can’t be expected to understand if no one, especially the government, doesn’t lend a helping hand.  Immigrants know more than enough about the saying “When in Rome do as Romans do”. We all know that English is the assumed “official” language of the United States. But this doesn’t need to be enforced and shoved in people’s faces, if it’s going to be English Anything than how about English First.

Immigrants always make the present progressive. They are learning English from the past to the future constantly with willingness and desire to settle down in this country and being hopeful for a better life.  Assimilation is a process. As each generation makes the progress, it will be naturally resolved into a new society. No law can speed it up. Lawful enforcement is merely imposing an artificial language barrier. It rather causes helpless immigrants and incurs marginalized immigrants coming from non-English speaking countries. Speaking English shouldn’t be a privilege or a struggle or a prerequisite or a burden.  It shouldn’t be a statement like “Learn or Leave.”  It’s a process of patience.  Children of immigrants clearly pick up English perfectly without their parent’s language being beaten out of them.  To many of us, ABC is not as easy as one, two, three.  Those of use who have the privilege of speaking English shouldn’t expect it to come so quickly to others, and we most definitely shouldn’t expect others to just drop their first-language just because “In America we speak American.”  Language is a huge part of our identities, and foreign languages should be shared as gifts, like wise, English should be shared not enforced.

Jae Lee, MICA BFA ’09

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