First Person

Not speaking English—as American as apple pie

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Protestors at a rally in Springdale, Arkansas, hold signs in English, Spanish, and Marshallese. Photo: Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center

Speaking multiple languages makes the US more diverse and stronger

Rosa Herrin is Oxfam’s Gulf Coast Policy Officer in New Orleans.

When I learned that one of the first actions taken by the new administration was deleting the Spanish site from the White House’s official web page, I was shocked and extremely disappointed. Although Trump’s presidential campaign gave us all the clues about potential threats to immigrant communities, I have to admit that I had remained hopeful.

Not speaking English is as American as apple pie: Every immigrant community that has settled in the United States brought their language and other cultural norms to their new home. Foreign languages have been spoken throughout this nation’s history by many immigrant groups, predominantly first generation immigrants. The fact is that English acquisition requires having the resources to invest in classes. Learning another language is not as easy as many may think, especially when you work long hours for low wages, take care of children or elderly parents (or both) at home, and have little time to spare.

When I came to the United States 14 years ago, I knew enough English to get by, but was not proficient, so I went to ESL (English as a Second Language) classes twice a week at the local community college. There I met a teacher who believed in me and helped me to go back to college to finish my undergraduate education. It was a free program at a public college open to immigrants from all over the world. Fortunately, I had a supportive husband who worked long hours, which granted me the privilege to learn this language.

Altogether, there are more than 50 million Spanish speakers in the US — even more than in Spain. One out of five people living in the US speaks a language other than English in the home. The most frequently spoken languages after Spanish are Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French, German, Korean, Arabic, Russian and Italian.

The more diverse we are, the stronger we are as a nation, and the more innovative and compassionate. Our policies should reflect who we are as nation of immigrants. When they don’t, we all lose.

We have seen this in the Gulf Coast before, during, and after every major natural and man-made disaster I have witnessed in the last 14 years. It was because of a lack of emergency information in their native language that many immigrants I know stayed in trailer parks near the Gulf after Hurricane Katrina hit the coast. It was because of a lack of language access that they did not know where they could go to pick up free water and food when they became available, and instead, had to pay $100 for a bag of ice.

Yes, these stories happened and could have been avoided if English-only wasn’t the expectation. The danger of this idea is not only that it’s discriminatory in intent and practice, but it has real consequences that affect the lives of our neighbors.

Advocating for information about services in multiple languages has been an important issue for Oxfam’s partners in the Gulf Coast, as a means to ensure that our hard-working immigrant communities are engaged in decisions that impact their lives.

After the BP oil spill disaster, for example, community-based organizations like Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation and Coastal Communities Consulting, Inc. translated and distributed vital documents for Vietnamese and Cambodian fishing communities who were directly impacted, and defended their rights to receive timely and accurate information to make informed decisions about their futures. Today they continue to advocate for their rights to be active participants in the development of the 2017 Louisiana Coastal Master Plan; many of the proposed projects will have a direct impact in the livelihoods of fisher folk, entrepreneurs, and coastal residents who speak other languages.

Deleting Spanish from the White House’s website is a move that turns a blind eye to history, and we all have heard about how those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is also against the law; Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees the right of people to speak their native language and receive vital information and resources from any agency receiving federal funds.

Language access is not a matter of opinion or political perspective; it’s a legal requirement. When we put one culture or language above others, we lose our connection to humanity, and we diminish our brothers and sisters from other nations, regions and neighborhoods. We divide in the name of unity.

English-only does not makes us a more uniform nation; it only makes us a more divided one, with non-English speakers left out. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+