The town of Carpentersville, Ill., has passed a resolution declaring English to be its “official language.” This happened in the context of a yearlong battle in which a faction of the town’s government has been trying to get legislation passed against the presence of “illegal aliens.” Forty percent of Carpentersville’s population is Latino. Often the worst anti-immigrant and anti-foreign agitation happens in communities where there is a possibility that Latinos or other immigrants may in the not-too-distant future become a majority of voters.

The Carpentersville resolution is only one instance of many of right-wing, xenophobic political forces trying to scare the public about supposed threats to the English language in this country. Similar resolutions have been passed in other communities, and there have been several proposed amendments of this kind to immigration legislation in Congress.

It is all malicious nonsense. There is no threat to the English language. In fact, English is so dominant in this country that it is hard to get Americans, even university students, to learn other languages. And, although first-generation immigrants may struggle a bit with English, their children here almost always are fluent in it, and by the third generation, the problem is not to get people to learn English, but to re-teach them the language of their grandparents. So this is a non-problem. When politicians try to turn a non-problem into a problem, you can bet that the purposes are demagogic.

Furthermore, there have always been non-English language communities in this country, and the sky has not fallen.

• Some 150 Native American languages are spoken here still, although in many cases only by a dwindling group of seniors. But in Native American communities where indigenous language use is strong, with children and young people as well as middle-aged and elderly people routinely using the language, there is both a practical need and a desire to have services provided in that language.

In some other communities, efforts are under way to preserve or even restore indigenous tongues. Surely nobody can claim that Navajo, Western Apache, Cherokee, Choctaw or Hopi are “foreign languages” in the United States. And what right does anybody have to suppress them or discriminate against their speakers, including in the provision of government services?

• Nor is Spanish a “foreign language” in the United States. Before English settlers arrived in Jamestown, Spanish was spoken in two areas of what is now the United States: St. Augustine, Fla., and the Southwest, especially New Mexico. True, most Spanish speakers here today are not direct descendants of these early Spanish and Spanish-Mexican settlers, but neither are most English speakers descendants of the English settlers of Jamestown or the Mayflower group.

• Other long-standing communities of non-English European language speakers in the United States include “Cajun” (Acadian) French speakers in Louisiana and Plautdeutch (Low German) speakers in Pennsylvania, who were there before the United States was an independent country. None of these people have ever constituted a “problem” for the unity of this country.

In fact, in other countries where soul mates of the English-only crowd claim that multiple language use has led to disunity, the disunity has almost always come from the efforts of one language community to suppress the language of the others, not from the mere existence of multiple languages. Belgium and Canada are examples. Switzerland, on the other hand, is an example of a country where four languages (German, French, Italian and Romansch) are official and language has never been a threat to national unity. In places where disunity is at its most violent right now, like Iraq and Lebanon, language is not the issue.

• And what about the Puerto Rican people? Although it is my view that the Puerto Ricans are a distinct nation and that Puerto Rico should not be ruled by the U.S. anyway, current U.S. law claims Puerto Ricans as citizens. Yet nobody doubts that this is an essentially Spanish-speaking population. By what right can the federal government, let alone the government of a small town like Carpentersville, deny this?

Early English settlers arrived here to find, to their horror, that the place was full of “foreigners” speaking “foreign tongues” and following “barbarous foreign customs.”

It did not occur to most of the English settlers that they themselves, in fact, were the only “foreigners” around. But surely we have got beyond that backward attitude, and will reject the demagogy of the “English only” and “official English” movements.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.

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