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ENGLISH-ONLY: An Extension of Immigrant and Racial Prejudice

(This article is dedicated to students studying English as a second language.)




“The most important relationship between language and culture that gets to the heart of what is lost when you lose a language is that most of the culture is in the language and is expressed in the language.   …you take away its greetings, its curses, its praises, its laws, its literature, its songs, its riddles, its proverbs, its cures, its wisdom, its prayers…  the language stands for that whole culture.   … And, therefore, any time when we are at outs with some other culture, we begin to say snide things about the language. “Oh, it sounds so harsh. And it sounds so cruel” because we think its speakers are cruel or it sounds so poor or it sounds so primitive because we think they are primitive…” -Joshua Fishman, Linguist, “What Do You Lose When You Lose Your Language?” -



                In keeping with the above quote, it is noted that the “English-only” movement, the effort to make English the official language of the United States, is a thinly veiled Trojan Horse designed to protect its supporters’ political, economic and social power by discriminating against specific immigrants and/or racial groups.  On the surface, its proponents claim they seek to enhance patriotism, unify the country, and preserve what is best for America.  However, to keep it 100, it should be known that irrational biases regarding race, ethnicity and national origins lurk inside the Trojan Horse. 

The foregoing is not just the opinion of this author.  In their position paper against “English-only” policies, a group of noted scholars wrote, “…the leadership of the “English-only” movement promotes racist and anti-immigration sentiments…   English-only is socially divisive and poses a threat to the human welfare that psychologists espouse in the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists.” http://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/english-only.aspx

The roots of the divisiveness embedded in “English-only” are anchored in the nation’s origins, i.e., the days when slave masters required their slaves to use English only, albeit just a little English.    

“Good Christian” slaveholders tried to assuage their guilt by advancing the fallacious argument that African slaves were less than “human” because they had no “human” language and, instead, spoke a “savage, animal-like gibberish.”  In fact, the slaves came from a continent that was possibly the most linguistically diverse area in the world. 

Slave holders also made the false claims that African slaves were biologically inferior due to their “small brains” which inhibited their learning of much more English than “Yes, and No, master,” i.e., the basics they needed to be subservient.   Slave masters contended that the slaves also had limited ability to learn and speak English because of their “thick lips,” “flat noses,” and “lazy tongues.”  Not understanding what the slaves might say in their native languages, slave masters prohibited the use of African languages which might have been used to secretly plot slave revolts. 

As Malcolm X noted, “…The slave maker knew that he couldn't make these people slaves until he first made them dumb. And one of the best ways to make a man dumb is to take his tongue, take his language. A man who can't talk, what do they call him? A dummy. Once your language is gone, you are a dummy. You can't communicate with people who are your relatives, you can never have access to information from your family …And if the master would ever find any of those children who had any knowledge of its mother tongue, that child was put to death. They had to stamp out the language; ...this is how they took your language. You didn't lose it, it didn't evaporate—they took it …because they knew they had to take it to make you dumb…”   http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/malconafamhist.html

The “founding fathers’ and mothers’” xenophobia was not limited to African slaves.  As English Professor Dennis Baron wrote, “…language became a political and an emotional issue as early as the 1750s, when British settlers in Pennsylvania began to fear and resent the fact that a third of their fellow Pennsylvanians were German speakers.  …Complaints about Germans as well as other non-English-speakers became all too common in the last quarter of the 19th century, and again during and after World War I, when the fear of immigrants and their languages prompted protective English-only legislation. Many Americans considered non-Anglophones to be less than human…”  http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/officialamerican/englishonly/

                At the moment, some folks are gripped by irrational fears associated with Americans who speak Spanish, Arabic, and an array of African languages.  Speaking a language other than English, especially if it is not a European language, is integral to the close-minded nature of some who fear that “those people” are “taking over” America.  “English-only” proponents’ fears are what led to the recent incident whereby Professor Guido Menzio was escorted off an airline after a woman thought he was a terrorist because she observed him making “cryptic notes, scrawled in a script she didn’t recognize."  The “cryptic notes” turned out to be mathematical formulations!   These are the same fears that some had when London elected its first Muslim Mayor; Hamtramck Michigan citizens elected their first majority-Muslim City Council; and America elected its first African American President. 

Personal names often serve as a “shorthand” for languages spoken by people to be discriminated against.  For example, although the distinguished scientist had been elected to the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering, chills might have run through some closed-minded people when they learned that President Obama selected Subra Suresh to serve as director of the National Science Foundation and, later, Carnegie Mellon University selected him as president.  They might have hovered in fear when the University of Pittsburgh named Arjang A. Assad as the Dean of their Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration –never mind his having earned four degrees from MIT and having had a very distinguished professional career over more than 20 years.  Instead, the “English-only” advocates prefer people who look and sound like themselves and, therein, is the “rub.”

Given that English is the primary language used in the courtroom, classroom, city council, the corporate sector and, in general, is the language used for most governmentally and societally sanctioned activities, it is of pragmatic importance that immigrants learn English as a second language.  However, the “English-only” advocates seek much more than this.  Their basic intent is to halt people of certain races, religions, and geographical origins from “coming to America” and, if they are already here, to force them to assimilate --shed all remnants of their cultures—as soon as possible.  Never mind the fact that if the immigrants comply, they still will not enjoy the same mobility as Whites.

One group of scholars’ research indicated that, “…compared to an applicant with a standard American‐English accent, one with a Mexican‐Spanish accent was at a disadvantage when applying for the software engineering job. The Mexican‐Spanish‐accented applicant was rated as less suitable for the job and viewed as less likely to be promoted to a managerial position.   In addition, fewer participants decided to hire the Mexican‐Spanish‐accented applicant than the standard American English‐accented applicant…”  http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/02683941211220162

Again, there is the pragmatic need to use the dominant language, in this case English, of a given society.  However, this is not an endorsement of the embedded “English-only” prejudice that renders a French or Italian accent as being “so sexy;” a British accent as so “prestigious;” a German accent as signifying “scientific acumen,” a White southerner’s accent reminding one of a “good old boy/girl;” but the accent of a Black English speaker signifies someone not to be trusted, someone of criminal propensity, and someone not to be hired!  It is blatant bias to assert that the Slovenian immigrant and possibly first foreign-born First Lady Melania Trump’s accent is somehow more “beautiful and intelligent” than that of First Lady Michelle Obama.


Young people learning English as a second language should do precisely that, i.e., learn it very well as a second language; a tool that enables them to function better in our global village; an additional way of understanding and appreciating the world; and something that builds on the rich heritage of their original language.  They should never lose or think less of their Amharic, French, Jamaican Patois, Korean, Krio, Persian, Punjabi, Somali, Spanish, Tanga, and Vietnamese all of which can be found in a single American public school classroom.  Lest they forget and mistakenly believe that English is the “better, correct, best, right, prestigious” language, then they will become the “dummy” referenced above by Malcolm X.   They will be placed on a mental reservation from which there is no escape. 

Understand that, with the loss of their languages, the Cherokee, Choctaws, Iroquois, Mohawks, Seminoles and others lost much more than their native land.  They began a descent into their extinction as a cultural group of people with distinct ways of being and becoming.  While learning English as a second language, one should not mistakenly believe that they and their people as well as their “ways” are “old and inferior ways.”  To do so would be to voluntarily place themselves in the abyss of self-denigration, to place themselves on a mental reservation from which they might never escape.


Jack L. Daniel

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor


May 12, 2016

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