“Much discussion of what is likely to happen to English is colored, sometimes luridly, by what people dread or desire — for their children, their neighborhoods, their nations, their world. Human aspirations, of course, have a great deal to do with what comes to pass. And language is very much tied up with aspiration.” — Barbara Wallraff, “What Global Language?,” Atlantic Monthly, November 2000.
When Senator Jack Jackson (D-Window Rock) stated that “some things cannot be taught in English,” he made an important point — our understanding of our world is inextricably tied to our language, no matter what our culture. He, and the thousands of others who banded together against Proposition 203, the initiative to ban bilingual education in the schools, fought for more than just the right to teach in Navajo, but the right to determine the future of Native American cultures. Indeed, they fought to ensure that Native cultures survive. With State Attorney General Janet Napolitano’s recent opinion that Prop. 203 will not apply to Native American language instruction, they stand victorious.
And it is a crucial victory. Proposition 203 was not just about speaking Spanish or Navajo or Hopi in the classroom. In the minds of many voters, it was about which language would be spoken in this country, which culture would prevail in an increasingly diversified nation.
Perhaps the fact that the United States has long been what we might call “linguacentric,” perhaps even “linguaphobic,” valuing one language, the English language, to the exclusion of all others, is no surprise. More than once before the election, I heard irate stories about English-speaking visiting southern California who were unable to communicate with the local people, because they did not speak Spanish. But more than being irate, I think they were uneasy and found it simple to slip into cultural indignation—to use the “but this is America” defense— to cover their fear.
But the “this is America” shield is weakening, because how we define America is changing. It has to. From all indications, English will not have the predominance many English-speakers hope it will have. According to the 1990 census, only one in seven people said they spoke English at home. That was ten years ago. According to that same census, from 1980-1990 the number of Spanish speakers in this country grew by 50 percent.
You can’t argue with number like that. As Barbara Wallraff points out in her article, “What Global Language?,” Atlantic Monthly, November 2000, people are “delighted to be able to gather information, shop, do business and be entertained in [their] own language.” There is no way, not by force or threat of punishment, to make people stop speaking their language, to adopt another language, or even to leave theirs by the wayside because they are told there will be a better job if they do. Even if they do not speak it publicly, they will speak it nonetheless.
The debate over Proposition 203 brought out another ugly fact: many people in this country knowing English not with education alone but with intelligence itself. Many assume that those who do not speak English are somehow lesser—not as intelligent, not as cultured, not as fortunate—and so deserving of either disdain or of pity.
But there is nothing inherent in the language that makes it superior to another, nothing that indicates that the people who speak it are somehow more intelligent than those in this country who speak Spanish or Navajo or Hopi, or the plethora of other languages spoken here. In this country, the domination of English can be traced to colonialism—English gained the upper hand through bloodshed and oppression. English gained the upper hand through boarding schools.
Proposition 203 strikes at the heart of a complex issue—language is, after all, raw and powerful. Those speaking it within a group are bound together; those who cannot speak it are relegated to the fringes, no matter what language they speak. It would be well considered for those people who speak “English Only” to learn other languages, just as it is important those who do not speak English (in this country) to learn it—for the sake of equal opportunity. This is what the real intention of Proposition 203 should be: to provide students with equal opportunities when it comes to the workplace. It may be true that those who have a better grasp of English have a better chance of doing well in school and therefore, stand a better chance of securing employment when they graduate. But the way to unify what promises to be a linguistically divided nation is not to tout one language to the detriment of another. We instead should recognize our diversity and embrace it. We should teach more languages, and to everyone who wants to learn them.
It is with relief that we note that Janet Napolitano’s opinion includes the idea that in order to rectify some of our problems, Native American courses in language and culture should be offered to all students. This not only helps to keep Native American cultures intact. It also helps those outside these cultures to understand them, and it is understanding, above all, that leads us to truth.
— Janel States James