Speak English Or Else?

Demostrator holds sign supporting Proposition 200, initiative designed to deny some public benefits to illegal immigrants, Tucson, Arizona, 2004/12/22
Last week, my column was motivated by my seeing a sticker on a van that read, "Speak English or Die." I looked into the "English-only" movement, which is against having the government spend money on multilingual versions of things like voting and educational materials.

My own personal feelings are that people who plan on staying here should learn English. But the reality is that not everybody does, and not everybody does right away. Maybe some of these people just need a little help feeling comfortable here.

Prior to writing the column, I believed that many people hold sincere views that these multilingual publications represent an inappropriate use of public funds as well as an incorrect message for immigrants who haven't learned English. I also felt that — considering all the current immigrant bashing — that some, yes, just some, of the people who were for the "English-only" policies were people who felt some intolerance for immigrants and were just using this policy as a way to legitimize or mask their true feelings.

I received more e-mails in response to this column than to any of my previous columns. This even includes the column about "SpongeBob Square Pants," which elicited a great number of e-mails because of the apparent controversy regarding the cartoon character's supposed subversive homosexuality.

The number of responses and their contents only confirmed my original views about this topic. Many people combined the English-only topic with their criticism of immigrants as "illegals," and as "people who are destroying our culture." Some of them magically see immigrants as simultaneously "too lazy to get jobs" and "stealing jobs from Americans."

I share some of the responses with you:

Mary (Not her real name): Why don't we start printing everything in Islam, too? Maybe we can make it easier for the terrorists — they won't have to learn English.

Audrey: How dare you come into this country and insult the way we speak. Remember we belong here, you don't.

Laurie: yes we are in America speak English or go back to your own country. [sic]

JP: I think English as the only language serves a useful purpose, for instance, enabling the Mexican immigrant to order Chinese food.

Courtney: Have you ever considered that the immigrants themselves might do better in the long run if we stopped coddling them in their own languages?

Ann: I think they should learn English because when they want to get a better job than working in Wal-Mart they will have to speak English.

Bette: Some of us had ancestors that were already here when settlers/immigrants came to this country, and most of mine would not have learned to speak English at all if "non-native" people had not come to America. Without getting on a soapbox, I do think that many people that advocate English-only are forgetting that English is not the native language of this country, so perhaps a little tolerance wouldn't be such a bad thing.