September 5, 2007
By RUTH KUNSTADTER
THE CURRENT immigration debate is not only dividing our nation, it is also threatening one of the most valuable -- and already endangered -- resources for the future of this country: the linguistic and cultural expertise of our immigrant communities.
Anti-immigrant fever is growing at an alarming rate. U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo recently blamed the horrific murders in Newark on lax immigration policies, and hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan have gained new energy by retraining their sights on immigrants.
According to Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, "We haven't had this kind of intensity and widespread, deep-seated anger for almost 100 years."
Not surprisingly, that anger is resulting in discrimination against all immigrants -- not just those who may be undocumented -- and, increasingly, against the languages they speak.
Last July, the mayor of Bogota called for a boycott of McDonald's when the corporation put up a billboard for iced coffee -- in Spanish -- in his town. Mayor Steve Lonegan labeled the advertisement "offensive" and "divisive."
In June of this year, the Senate approved an amendment to make English the national language. Some would like to go one step further and institute an "English-only" law.
With messages like these from our policymakers, it's no surprise that a New Jersey mother was chided at her own son's birthday party for speaking to him in Spanish. As she prepared to take a photo, she counted, "Uno, dos, y tres." An adult guest at the party said, "What's that? In this country, we speak English."
The rallying cry of "This is America -- we speak English here" is hardly new. This country has a long history of intolerance toward other languages and cultures. The current anti-immigrant sentiment is only adding fuel to the fire.
One of the concerns raised by immigration opponents is that other languages will "take over" our country. Immigrants make no attempt to learn English, they say, and soon we will all have to speak Spanish (or Chinese, or Hindi) in order to go to the market, vote or get a job.
But the real linguistic danger is not that immigrant languages are taking over. The real danger is that they are being lost -- and the implications for our economic and political future are profound.
Businesses are clamoring for multilingual workers who can help them access the global marketplace. The U.S. government is desperately seeking speakers of other languages deemed vital to our homeland security. And our reputation as a monolingual, culturally insensitive nation significantly jeopardizes our diplomatic relations around the world.
Our future in the global community depends on developing the linguistic and cross-cultural capacity to meet these needs. It's ironic that the government has recognized this by providing increased funding for foreign language programs – but refuses to protect and promote the multilingual proficiency we already have, within our immigrant communities.
As a result, these capabilities are rapidly slipping away. Far from "taking over," in reality immigrant languages almost entirely disappear by the third generation. Ruben Rumbaut, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine, reports that even among Mexican-Americans in Southern California -- the population most likely to retain their language -- only 10 percent of the grandchildren of immigrants can speak Spanish well, and 96 percent prefer to use English at home.
This loss of language continues the pattern set by our immigrant ancestors a century ago, despite extraordinary advances in communication and travel. Pop culture, societal pressure and the sheer omnipresence of English have all made it difficult for languages to survive. And there is little support to combat the trend; on the contrary, the message from many policymakers and birthday party mothers alike is that other languages and cultures are not welcome here.
The United States has always been a linguistic graveyard for immigrants, resulting in a loss to families and our society. But the ramifications now are even greater than before. This precious national resource is vital to our future, and needs to be preserved and promoted. Indeed, we should all strive to learn more than one language.
We won't get very far in the new global economy -- or in the democratic beliefs we seek to promote abroad -- as a monolingual and xenophobic nation.
We simply cannot afford the short-sightedness and intolerance of an anti-immigrant and "English-only" mentality.
So rather than saying, "This is America -- we speak English here," our new rallying cry should be: "This is America. We speak all languages here."
Ruth Kunstadter, a Spanish professor and owner of Chispa Productions LLC, creates multimedia materials that promote teaching languages with a focus on the linguistic and cultural resources in our local communities.