¿Se habla ingles?

Reno groups like the Eagle Forum would like to see English protected as the official language of the United States

With English as the official language of the United States, government signs and documents would not be bilingual.

With English as the official language of the United States, government signs and documents would not be bilingual.

Photo By David Robert

You’ve seen them around town— the billboards, printed in Spanish, advertising everything from banks to beer. You heard the “Latin Explosion” on your radio, artists like Enrique Iglesias belting out hits in a language that some don’t understand. Many view the ever-growing presence of the Spanish language as a sign of the times, a reflection of the nation’s increasing diversity.

For others, it’s a threat to the American way of life.

“In order to protect American culture and liberty, we need people who read and speak English so they understand the freedom,” explained Janine Hansen of Nevada Families Eagle Forum. The group is involved in a broad range of pro-family, pro-constitution issues, Hansen said.

Eagle Forum and other like-minded groups also press for English to be declared the official language of the United States. They’d like to see all public records and signs printed in English alone. Census forms, driver’s license tests, even ballots would be available only in English.

An ad from the organization U.S. English Inc. included a picture of youths, hands over hearts in front of a flag, saying, “I pledge allegiance to the bandera de los Estados Unidos de Amerika und der republik …” Under the photo, a caption stated: “Will it come to this? We hope not. But it doesn’t look good.”

Jesse Gutierrez, executive director of Nevada Hispanic Services, isn’t convinced of the need to make English the official language.

“Spanish will be big [in the United States],” he said. “I would hate for English to be the only language.”

For Hansen, it’s about helping those new to the nation.

“It’s so important, especially for immigrants, to speak English, for them not to be disadvantaged,” Hansen said. Giving English the status of official language will nudge immigrants to learn it faster, she said, making assimilation easier and improving their quality of life.

Gutierrez said this assumption is flawed.

“Assimilation takes place [without an official language],” he said. “Italians learned English in first and second generations. [Assimilation] is going to happen, regardless. Second- and third-generation Hispanics are speaking English. It’s not really a problem.”

Think of the children
Education for non-English-speaking children is a touchy subject. Eagle Forum president Phyllis Schlafly opposes bilingual education.

“It’s always been a fraud,” she wrote in her May 2001 column. “It keeps immigrant children languishing in Spanish-speaking classes for six years or more.”

While Reno does not have a bilingual program, it does have English as a Second Language, or ESL. ESL programs differ from bilingual education in that ESL classes are taught entirely in English, regardless of a student’s native language or level of English comprehension.

The curriculum starts with first grade and involves everything from learning the basics of English and American culture to yearly state-mandated language tests, said Mary Sue Morin, program coordinator of ESL in Reno.

Chopin Kiang, a Reno resident who works as a federal and state consultant in the area of English Language Acquisition programs with ESL, moved to California in the late 1950s. Political refugees from China, his family arrived in America when he was 11 years old. They spoke no English.

“I was a very poor student with low literacy skills through junior high and high school,” Kiang recalled. “I learned English very slowly, mostly from the street. Today, even some 40 years later, I am still incapable to speak correct standard English. I have a master’s [degree]. [I’m] a Ph.D. candidate, and I still find myself lacking in common conversation with individuals of high intellectual caliber.”

His school had no program to deal with non-English-speaking students, so he was sent to the school’s speech pathologist, who was poorly equipped to help him. This struggle led to Kiang’s chosen profession.

“Because of my difficulty in acquiring the English language in my formative years, I dedicated my life, basically, embracing children from other countries,” he said. “Recent arrivals. Immigrant kids. That is why I became a teacher with an emphasis in ESL programs for the past 20 years.”

Judy Stone, a kindergarten teacher at Bernice Mathews Elementary School in Reno, experiences these difficulties daily. Many of her students have only spoken Spanish before coming into her class.

You wouldn’t be able to tell by listening to them.

Her classroom is filled with posters—numbers, the alphabet, colors. And while the main doors of Bernice Mathews have signs printed in English and Spanish, every poster in Stone’s room is in English.

“There’s several [students] every year who have no English at all, who come from a house where no English is spoken,” Stone said. She has an aide who speaks Spanish and helps communicate with the parents or translate some instructions to the students with a limited grasp of English. Otherwise, according to Stone, the class is total immersion.

“I can understand very little [Spanish],” she said.

This sort of total immersion is key to helping immigrant children learn English faster, according to everyone from Schlafly to Morin. But if the best program for helping children assimilate to life in America is already in use, why does the movement for making English the official language continue?

Baseball, apple pie and English
Schlafly, in her column, reminded supporters that all historical and legal documents of the United States were originally written in English. To translate terms like “due process of law,” “freedom of speech” and “cruel and unusual punishments” could change their connotations and fundamental significance.

In addition, judicial decisions printed in different languages could create different sets of precedents, depending on translation. Making English the official language would eliminate any possible confusion or loopholes.

But everything, from the works of Plato to the Bible, has been translated over and over again. By Eagle Forum logic, that must have obscured original meanings entirely. Some say translation is an inescapable part of bridging the gap between history and the present.

“What is American culture?” Gutierrez asked. “It’s a land of immigrants … America is full of different cultures.”

When ESL consultant Kiang was growing up, his mother emphasized speaking English outside the home.

“We came to America to become Americans,” she told her children.

Unfortunately, Kiang said, her strong emphasis on English ultimately caused a language barrier between her and her children—she stayed at home and learned very little English, while Kiang gradually forgot how to speak Chinese. On her deathbed, she told him that because of their language barrier, she could not tell him how much she loved him. The memory brought tears to his eyes.

This is why, Kiang said, English is not the only key to a fulfilling life in America.

“Ultimately, we are all going to be American,” he said. “It’s not just speaking English. It’s appreciating the core values of integrity, hard work, loyalty and compassion. That is the real way to be an American.”

History shows that American culture continually defines and redefines itself through the traditions and societies of those who have immigrated here. Perhaps different languages are merely a visible sign of this amalgamation.

“My message to those who want English only is: Consider the personal side of it," Kiang said. "It’s not a political issue. I couldn’t understand what [my mother] wanted to tell me, not even at her deathbed. Learning English is a skill you need to have, but preservation of your native language is important, too."