Mar 212010

America needs immigration reform. Many people from all sides of the political sphere agree on this.

But sadly, many calling for immigration reform have errantly linked the reasonable goal of immigration reform with the absurd desire to make English the exclusive language of our nation.

While at first it seems logical to force immigrants to exclusively use our language, the ramifications of “English Only” policies end up causing far more harm than good. Movements to further enshrine English as our only language, like the H.R. 1228 currently under consideration by our nation’s Congress, will be counterproductive.

The idea behind the English Only movement is that English is the dominant language of our nation, our founding documents were written in English and the majority of our culture and traditions are based in English. As such, proponents claim we should make our governments, national and local, deal only in English to ensure that its supremacy remains unchallenged and that immigrants quickly learn English., a leading proponent of declaring English as our nation’s exclusive language, says, “Official English unites Americans, who speak more than 322 languages, by providing a common means of communication; it encourages immigrants to learn English in order to use government services and participate in the democratic process; and it defines a much-needed common sense language policy.”

That all sounds reasonable. Encouraging immigrants to learn English sounds like a nice idea, but what really happens if an immigrant isn’t yet fluent? Many of those government services are essential to everyone, regardless of whether they speak English.

Should a person calling 911 be denied access to emergency services because they don’t perfectly grasp English? Should a wife be denied the ability to take part in the health decisions of her critically ill husband because she can’t fully understand the doctors at an English Only government-run hospital? Should parents be unable to talk to their children’s teachers because the school is not allowed to hire translators?

People who speak only one language often assume that people are only capable of being totally fluent or completely ignorant of a language. They fail to realize that there is a long and difficult intermediate stage in the language-learning process, where you are able to understand and speak enough to get by without yet achieving fluency.

Those of you who have studied a foreign language at a fairly high level understand that while you could probably conduct business in that second language, you would prefer to deal in your native tongue, and the odds of making mistakes on a crucial government document would be much higher were you denied access to English. Personally, I can order food and ask for directions in Spanish, but I couldn’t, if forced to, do my taxes in it.

The people we are denying these government services to are, in fact, learning and want to be fluent in English. They just aren’t there yet.
The sorts of services the English Only movement seeks to deny non-fluent English speakers access includes health services, social welfare programs, ballots and driver’s license tests.

This also harms those of us who are fluent in English.

Simple question: Would you rather have an immigrant on the road who passed a driver’s test written in Spanish or an immigrant who has no license at all? Our society as a whole becomes less safe if a substantial portion of our population is unable to communicate with the government in a language it understands.

In Colorado, we amended our state Constitution to make English the state’s only official language in 1988. Nationally, legislators are trying to pass H.R. 1228, which would override President Clinton’s executive order that provides services to people with “limited English proficiency.”

If a major wave of immigrants were coming here who truly didn’t want to learn English, the English Only movement would have a case for passing more of these laws. But recent census data indicates that 98 percent of Latino immigrants felt that it was “essential” that their children understand English “perfectly.”

Clearly English will remain our nation’s dominant tongue for the foreseeable future. Why should we discriminate against immigrants who are still learning English and embitter them toward our language?

The English Only movement is a poisonous non-solution to our flawed immigration system.

Editorials Editor Ian Bezek is a senior economics major. His column appears Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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