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Language Barriers

English has never been America's "official" language.
What's behind the recent efforts to change that?

By Robbie Brown in Nashville

Click for graphic
In crisp Japanese, City Councilman Eric Crafton read aloud his resolution to limit Nashville government workers to communicating only in English. "Kono jyoukyou wa kaeru bekidesu," said Crafton, who is fluent in Japanese from his Navy service in Japan. It means, "This situation must change."

The fact that few people, if any, attending the City Council meeting understood Crafton was the point. The Tennessee state capital, like most cities in the country, allows government officials to communicate in any language they choose, and Crafton wanted to change that.

In a proposal that dominated local politics for two years and echoed similar debates around the country, Crafton hoped to make Nashville the largest city in the U.S. to prohibit the government from using languages other than English, with exceptions for issues of health and safety. Crafton says the city government spends more than $100,000 a year on translation and related services, and that he believes those costs should be borne by the constituents who require them.

"I happened to see a state legislature meeting in California where several of the state representatives had interpreters at their desk because they couldn't speak English," Crafton says. "That's not the vision I have for Nashville."

But the vision he does have for Nashville—and eventually America—drew criticism from the mayor and a coalition of civil rights groups, business leaders, ministers, and immigration experts.

While Crafton referred to his proposal as "English First," opponents called it "English Only." In an Op-Ed piece in The Tennessean newspaper, the leaders of nine institutions of higher education in Nashville said the proposal would harm the city's reputation for tolerance and diversity. "The irony of the city known as 'the Athens of the South' becoming the first major metropolitan community in America to pass 'English only' is a distressing prospect," they wrote.

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce also opposed the proposal. "Economics is global, and to be competitive you cannot drive away immigrants and the businesses that rely on them," says Ralph J. Schulz, the chamber president. "Businesses from outside Nashville have been calling and saying, 'Is Nashville a xenophobic place?'"

Ben Franklin's Opinion

On January 22, Nashville voters rejected the English First proposal. It needed 50 percent of the vote to pass and drew only 44 percent.

The United States has never had an official language. But the debate over language in this country goes back at least as far as the 1750s, when British colonists in Pennsylvania began to resent the influx of Germans. Benjamin Franklin questioned why Germans should "be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours."

Early in the 20th century, immigrants from Italy and other countries in Southern and Eastern Europe were criticized for what many perceived as their unwillingness to learn English and assimilate. "We have room for but one language—the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg speech," said former President Theodore Roosevelt in 1916.

More recently, Senator S.I. Hiyakawa of California sponsored legislation in 1981 to encourage people to learn English and reduce multilingualism in government. Since then, a number of bills have been introduced in Congress to make English America's official language—including the English Language Unity Act of 2009, sponsored by Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, which would also require the federal government to do most of its business in English.

Thirty states, including Tennessee, and at least 19 cities, most small, have made English their official language.

At the local level, many of the official-English proposals were passed in conjunction with ordinances that crack down on illegal immigrants in various ways. These measures have been strongly opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant-advocacy groups like La Raza.

When Hazleton, Pennsylvania, passed an official-English ordinance in 2007, it also passed a law imposing fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and denying business permits to companies that employ them. Similar measures have been passed in Valley Park, Missouri; Farmers Branch, Texas; and Carpentersville, Illinois, but most are being challenged in the courts.

Reaching Out

A number of larger cities that have traditionally been more open to immigrants are taking the opposite tack and reaching out to those who don't speak English. San Francisco has launched an ad campaign targeting illegal immigrants in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian with the message: "You are safe here." And Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York has ordered city agencies to provide language assistance in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian, and French Creole.

In Nashville, the 25th-largest city in America, two factors seemed to motivate Crafton's supporters: the booming immigrant population and the faltering economy.

In the 1990s, the number of immigrants in Nashville tripled, according to government estimates, and more than 10 percent of residents were born outside the country.

But over the past year, as the economy softened and the state unemployment rate rose to 7.9 percent from 5 percent, experts say, immigrants came under greater criticism.

"While the immigrant population burgeoned, there was very little organized anti-immigrant attitude," says Daniel B. Cornfield, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "But the anti-immigrant sentiment seemed to mobilize as the economy slowed down."

David Morales, a Mexican immigrant and translator living in Nashville, says the language issue is "part of a larger problem of people not understanding immigrants: their habits, their languages, their barbecues in the front yard.

"It's more than just fear about jobs," he says. "It's fear about a whole way of life."