It’s a free country, but don't speak your own language

It’s a free country, but don't speak your own language
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America has gone from land of the free to home of the not-so-brave, where some people push for an English-only movement. Last week an irate white male lawyer threatened to call immigration officials on employees at a New York restaurant because they were speaking Spanish.

And, recently the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against Albertsons grocery stores, alleging the company subjected its Hispanic workers to harassment and a hostile work environment by implementing a no-Spanish policy.

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This form of linguistic paranoia should be banned — not the practice of people speaking their own native language.

 

When we moved from Taipei, Taiwan, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, my family lived in a predominantly white neighborhood, and I attended school with a small number of students of color. My middle school started an English Second Language (ESL) class because of me.

I hung out with the black kids and the punk rockers at lunch as an “other.” I longed to live in a more racially diverse area where I might have the chance to speak Chinese to anyone other than my mom, dad or my sisters. I thought this would happen once we got to a more metropolitan city like Dallas, Texas.

But one night while dining out, I tried to speak Mandarin to a waitress who had been speaking Chinese to the kitchen staff behind the counter; she replied to me in English, completely ignoring my request to acknowledge our common cultural grounds. I was shocked.

Only about one in four Americans can hold a conversation in a second language. Thirty-two U.S. states have Official English laws. English is the official language in 51 nations throughout the world. This low level of inclusion and diversity does not translate to equity in policy.

My ex-husband was mindful of this. He is white and speaks only English. When we visited with my family, he often thought they were speaking ill of him in Chinese. This insecurity led to many miscommunications and misunderstandings that are reflected often in our society. The average immigrant or refugee living in extreme poverty does not have immediate access to school or language skill training. Becoming proficient in English is a challenge.

On one hand, this movement could help establish unity by  preserving the English language and assisting new arrivals in learning English. On the other hand, this movement restricts free speech, increases discrimination and promotes division. These may be the reasons why the United States Constitution does not establish an official language, and legislative attempts to do so have not been successful, so far.

We need to seek empathy and understanding with those who face language barriers. Not having language is a disability and it should be considered in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Without access to a language, people are just as debilitated as the blind or the deaf when it comes to access to information.

The attitude that people who come to this country must speak English is antiquated and does nothing to bolster the concept of human centered design in resolving the world's most difficult problems. This outdated idea of "English only" prevents immigrants from being able to contribute fully to society, when all most of us want to do is to become participating and productive citizens.

Feeling too intimidated to speak your native tongue should not be an issue at work or during your personal time. Our constitution guarantees free speech, so  clearly those on both sides of this debate should be able to express their opinions; but this should not be a company’s policy or the law. To be asked to hush in the library when we’re too loud is one thing, but to silence anyone for simply speaking to his or her fellow neighbors in their own language is absolutely unacceptable.

We have to urge corporations to reexamine their human resources handbook on what’s appropriate regarding language usage in the workplace. Otherwise we’re in danger of not having the valuable resources immigrants and migrants can bring to the workforce simply because they don’t speak English. That is not the America we signed up for.

Jin-Ya Huang is the founder of Break Bread, Break Borders, which is a social entrepreneurship that provides economic empowerment to refugees through sharing food and culture.  She is a Dallas Greenhouse Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.