August 2nd: English only– and what message it sends to our children…


Let’s face it: the Trump White House is the most incompetent and deceitful we’ve seen in the history of this country and when things go south, you need to throw your base some red meat, and that’s what happened this week.

Sessions is going to take down Affirmative Action on the false premise that whites are being discriminated against in college admissions (whites and Asians are still the large majority at most and some of the best schools) and Trump announced a new bill in which legal immigrants to this country need to speak English if they want to enter this country.

Aside from the blatantly WASPish agenda this reveals, I don’t want to go into why all of this is misguided and evil– I just want to focus why a message of English Only sets a bad example for our monolingual children who now may think that doing a foreign language requirement in HS or college is for losers. Or rather, with an English Only claim it puts English above all other languages and as the only language you need to know to get on in the world.

When I taught Dutch at UC Berkeley, I always told my students on the first day of class: I don’t care if you take Dutch or Thai, speaking another language is good for the soul because it takes you out of your comfort zone and it will teach you things about yourself that you won’t learn in any other class on this campus.

Speaking another language opens a gateway to the world that will make you relate, empathize and communicate with people who may be different, but they are equal partners and residents of our global village. They may have different ideas about how the world should be run, but getting to communicate– willing to go there, and leave some of your own cultural moorings and convictions behind is educational and important for any human being to grow and be enlightened. Study Abroad programs get this and they may explain this much better than I do.

Aside from personal development, speaking another language is good for your economy. The Dutch have always been praised for speaking several languages which they propagated as “Well, we have to, because who speaks Dutch?” or “Well, we want the world to come to us and make deals, and speaking the customer’s language is a good way to make deals” but part of me suspects that the Dutch never want to get ripped off, so speaking the language of the other person — the one who might rip you off — will give you a leg up, and a better deal.

I’m well aware that the claim ENGLISH ONLY was not meant as an endorsement of Americans not having to speak any other languages, but the message it sent (Irish need not apply– oh wait, they do speak English so they’re in now!) gave me the heebies for the simple reason that it closes us off from the world and all the good people we may want to welcome and learn from. A recent NYT article said that the average immigrant to this country actually does better economically than the average American, and well, most immigrants I know are completely bilingual and may spell better English than some of my American friends, so who are we to call the kettle non-English?

I’ll leave this piece with one more anecdote. As some of you know, I help kids with their college essays and this week I was reading a moving college essay about speaking Spanish. The student I’m coaching wrote how two kids were dropped off (abandoned really) at summer camp and they were completely scared because they didn’t speak any English. The student who was helping out at the camp, decided to reach out (when no one else did or even bothered) using his High School Spanish to take these petrified kids by the hand and welcome them and show them the ropes in their own language. He was well aware of the insufficient Spanish he was speaking but he went totally out of his comfort zone to make these kids feel at home. The joy of using language as an actual tool to connect, communicate and be understood worked both ways here. This young man showed me in his essay (and by his actions) what Americans are made of and what values we believe in. It’s who we are and where we came from.

English Only? Ik denk het niet…

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