English-Free Zone: The Beauty of Language

At Jubilee Market Place on 68th and Freedom Place in Manhattan, a sign hangs just beside the deli counter that reads ‘English-Only Zone.’ It’s not one of those notices you might find scribbled on a sheet of paper and taped haphazardly to the wall; whoever hung this sign did a careful job of having it printed in clear, large font, on paper that matches the purple and green color scheme of the small market. It’s meant to be taken seriously, the same way one might frame the company motto and display it in the reception lounge for everyone to see.

Is it a warning against patrons who might slow the mad pace of lunch hour as they try to explain what kind of cold cuts they want on their sandwich? Is it reassurance for customers who grow afraid when the clerks serving them speak to one another in a language they can’t understand? Is it an ominous reminder to employees that they are to leave their mother tongue at the door when they show up for their shift – unless, of course, their mother tongue is English?

One of the essays I enjoy sharing with my ESL students is ‘When and Why We Speak Spanish in Public’ by journalist Myriam Marquez. For Marquez, speaking her mother tongue in public places – even when, heaven forbid, she and her family are surrounded by strangers who can’t understand them – is a matter of ‘respect for our parents and comfort in our cultural roots.’ It’s a simple assertion – so simple, in fact, that I have to wonder each time I read it what has driven her to make it in the first place. What are those who insist on the supremacy of English so frightened of? What has scared them so out of their wits that they need to be reminded of what language means?

During the 2012 presidential race, Republican candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney both expressed their support for English-Only legislation. Such a policy would, in Gingrich’s words, ‘create a continuity.’ A continuity of what, one must ask? The country we now call America was multilingual long before Europeans invaded it, and the Europeans that did eventually show up were not exclusively English-speakers. What grand tradition does Gingrich see himself carrying forward by imposing an official language in a country founded on the principle of Freedom of Speech?

Those who would like to see an ‘English-Only Zone’ clause written into the Constitution base their reasoning on any number of bizarre fantasies. But these fantasies cloud a more dangerous and violent line of thinking. Linguist Derek Bickerton aptly calls it ‘racism lite’: English-Only is a convenient vehicle for exercising prejudice with relative impunity. The store manager knows that he could never get away with a ‘Whites Only’ sign in his establishment. But ‘English-Only Zone’ allows him to indulge in any silly fantasy he wants: he is only trying to bring unity and order to his unruly customers and give his employees equal access to the American Dream. In fact what he has done is reserve the privilege of entering his establishment for those who resemble him – if not in outward appearance or in culture then at least in speech. Gingrich calls it ‘continuity’; fifty years ago George Wallace called it ‘preservation.’ In both cases, the goal is the same: maintaining a power structure where there are more white people at the center and more people of color on the margins.

When I explain that I teach ESL, I am often asked how many languages I speak besides English – the assumption being that there is no way I could teach someone English without first knowing that person’s mother tongue. In fact I’ve taught students at all levels, from absolute beginners to advanced learners, and 90% of time I can’t speak a word of their mother tongue. Teaching ESL has proven to me that language is only one of many means of communicating: little more is needed than the desire of one person to share information and the readiness of another person to receive that information. It might take a little longer to get the information across, but it can be done: It only requires empathy from both sides. And if you’re busy trying to occupy a position of dominance, if you’re more interested in controlling the person in front of you than actively communicating with him/her, you probably don’t have much empathy to spare.

Language is fluid. It changes over time, adopting words and disowning others, shedding its skin generation after generation, bleeding across borders and taking new shapes. Language follows our lead, shifting direction as we do, adapting to our choices. That’s what is beautiful about it. But language is also power. And applying privileges to that power is a ruthless perversion of all that language can be.