Language issues affect all aspects of an immigrant’s life in the United States. The ability to speak English correlates highly with the ability to function well. Access to information, health care, and cultural assimilation are often dependent on an immigrant’s ability to speak English.
Since its very beginning, the United States has been a country of many languages.
In later years, however, various events began to change this tolerant attitude. For example,
The onset of
We must have but one flag. We must also have but one language. That must be the language of the Declaration of Independence, of Washington’s Farewell Address, of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Speech and Second Inaugural. We cannot tolerate any attempt to oppose or supplant the language and culture that has come down to us from the builders of this Republic with the language of any European country. The greatness of this nation depends on the swift assimilation of the aliens she welcomes to her shores. Any force which attempts to retard that assimilative process is a force hostile to the highest interests of our country. . . . We call upon all loyal and unadulterated Americans to man the trenches against the enemy within our gates.
Two years later,
any man who carries a hyphen about him carries a dagger which he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic. If I can catch a man with a hyphen in this great contest, I know I will have got an enemy of the Republic.
By 1919, fifteen U.S. states had decided to make English the sole language of instruction in all their primary schools–both public and private. In some states, bills were introduced that would have prohibited the teaching of foreign languages in elementary schools. These legislative efforts were, in part, expressions of public fear of foreign influences. From 1920 to 1964, American citizenship gradually became dependent upon the ability to read and write the English language, which was increasingly becoming the language of government and education. One result of this tendency was that minority language speakers began to hide their ethnic origins and to forget their ancestral languages. Millions of people were taught to be ashamed of their ancestral languages, their parents, and their foreign origins. Even people whose ancestors who had come to America before the Revolutionary War were told that they could not keep their mother tongues and still be good American citizens. Speaking more than a single language was regarded as a sign of divided allegiance.
At various times in its history, the United States has imported people from other countries to work. For example, thousands of workers were brought from China to do menial work during the California gold rush after 1848. Even more were brought to work on the transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869. Like the members of many immigrant groups, Chinese immigrants
After the United States signed the Geneva convention relating to the status of political refugees in 1980, the nation opened its borders more widely to new immigrants. Russians, Bulgarians, Vietnamese, Mexicans, and many others entered the United States to find work. Some immigrants have entered the United States seeking
In 1968, the
A central question that needed to be resolved was whether immigrants should learn to speak English before beginning to learn other subjects, or should children begin their formal educations in their own languages so they would not be too old to participate in grade-level activities by the time they developed proficiency in English. The federal law gave individual school districts the freedom to choose whichever approach they believed warranted, so long as their programs were designed to meet the special educational needs of the students. However,
Lack of communication between immigrants and health care providers because of language differences can cause great harm to persons seeking health care. When doctors do not speak their patients’ languages and interpreters are not available, misunderstandings can lead to misdiagnoses, incorrect treatments, the inability of patients to understand instructions for medications and therapy, and inability to obtain information about financial assistance. In such situations, many immigrants are understandably reluctant to seek needed medical care. In extreme situations, misunderstandings between medical professionals and non-English-speaking patients can lead to deportation, financial loss, or even death.
Another area in which language issues make life more difficult for non-English-speaking immigrants is the field of information technology, known popularly as IT. As IT has played a growing role in workplaces, immigrants in general and Hispanics in particular are often at a disadvantage when they search for jobs. More than
Another difficulty is that many Hispanics do not have
During the early twentieth century, many Americans began accepting the idea that people who could not speak English could not be true, patriotic Americans. The large number of immigrant Italians, German Jews, and Slavic peoples entering the United States from eastern and southern European countries evoked fears among American citizens that new immigrants were not learning English quickly enough, and therefore not
By the early twenty-first century, most immigrants appeared to believe it was in their own interest to learn to speak English. By this time, members of most Hispanic immigrant families were learning English within two generations, whereas in the past it took about three generations. Consequently, many children of first-generation families now speak English as their primary language.
Kibler, Amanda. “Speaking Like a ’Good American’: National Identity and the Legacy of German-Language Education.” Teachers College Record 110, no. 6 (June, 2008): 1241-1268. Survey of the history of German language teaching in the United States, showing how it flourished before World War I and declined afterward. Ono, Hiroshi, and Madeline Zavodny. “Immigrants, English Ability, and the Digital Divide.” Social Forces 86, no. 4 (June, 2008): 1455-1479. Study showing how immigrants are both financially and culturally disadvantaged by their limited access to information technology, which is overwhelmingly in English. Pöllabauer, Sonja. “Interpreting in Asylum Hearings: Issues of Role, Responsibility and Power.” Interpreting 6, no. 2 (2004): 143-80. Findings of a study undertaken in Graz, Austria, where immigrants were asking for asylum in the United States. Translators and interpreters were found to shorten and paraphrase statements, leave out certain information, and otherwise distort the evidence given by the asylum seekers. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Excluded Student: Educational Practices Affecting Mexican Americans in the Southwest. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1972. Study revealing how the educations of Spanish-speaking students in southwestern states have been damaged by language differences. Youdelman, Mara K. “The Medical Tongue: U.S. Laws and Policies on Language Access.” Health Affairs 27, no. 2 (March/April, 2008): 424-433. Article providing statistics on state laws that deal with language access in health care facilities, and how states are held accountable for providing interpreters and translators.
English as a second language
English-only and official English movements
Hayakawa, S. I.
Lau v. Nichols