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English Only: The Language Wars Flare Up Again

Debates over language reflect the anxiety that some people feel about America's changing cultural landscape.
 
 
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The language wars flare up whenever insecure Americans worry that English is becoming passé.

It's a cultural paranoia that is laughably off the mark. According to research, children of immigrants stand a better chance of losing their native language and speaking only English than never learning English at all. Still, it's a fear that is resistant to facts. I ought to know. I've seen it up close.

Twenty-three years ago, on the night I graduated from high school, one of my co-valedictorians wrote into his speech a single sentence welcoming his grandparents, who had traveled to the United States to attend the ceremony. The sentence was in his grandparents' native language.

The night before, at the eighth-grade graduation across town, a young girl, another valedictorian, did something similar. She included a single sentence thanking her parents -- in their native language -- for their support.

The line in the high school speech was in German; the one in the speech for the junior high school was in Spanish. Guess which speech caused a fuss?

A few days before graduation, the junior high principal tried to pressure the student to remove the line in Spanish because he was afraid that those in the audience who didn't understand Spanish might feel uncomfortable. It was probably more likely the principal was afraid that he'd get angry phone calls that might make him uncomfortable.

The girl stood her ground. And the principal backed down.

Conversely, no one said a word about the line in German, even though -- in a town that was then about 70 percent Hispanic -- it's a safe bet that there were more people in the audience who didn't understand German than Spanish.

Now I read about Cindy and Hue Vo, cousins and co-valedictorians at Ellender High School in Louisiana, who recently delivered part of their commencement addresses in Vietnamese. They are daughters of Vietnamese immigrants.

Cindy told The Associated Press that she wanted to thank her parents for their support, so she dedicated a sentence to them in Vietnamese. It meant you should always be true to yourself, she explained to classmates. Hue said that she wanted to express gratitude to her parents for immigrating to the United States. Her parents want her to preserve her Vietnamese culture, and so she thought it would be more heartfelt to say what she said in their native tongue.

It turned out to be controversial. Because of the Vo girls, school officials are now thinking about adopting a policy that would require all future commencement speeches to be in English.

It's because some people are making noise. One of the noisemakers is Rickie Pitre, a school board member, who told AP that he was merely concerned about "inconsistencies" in the various graduation ceremonies in that parish in Louisiana. Then he put his cards on the table.

"I don't like them addressing in foreign language," he said. "They should be in English."

Here's what I don't like. I don't like it when busybody officials think that because they don't like something, they have to outlaw it. I don't like that language has become a proxy for the immigration debate and the anxiety that some people feel over a changing cultural landscape.

I don't like it that some American teenagers barely speak proper English, much less a foreign language, and that they will eventually be outmatched in the global job market if they come up against someone from Europe, Asia or Latin America who speaks two or three languages. I don't like that some of these same American kids resent the very notion of competition, and that English-only policies enable them by making everyone the same so that no one has a leg up because he knows more than one language.

I don't like the idea that some people would try to tell two Vietnamese-American girls, who through hard work and discipline earned the privilege of addressing classmates as co-valedictorians, the circumstances under which they can make the address. And I don't like it that more people don't see the way to avoid these kinds of controversies in the future is for those monolingual American kids to study harder and get better grades so that they can be valedictorians and give their speeches in the language they know: English only.

Ruben Navarrette is an editorial writer and board member for The San Diego Union-Tribune. He also writes and records commentaries for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."

 
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