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The need for a bilingual America

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Esther Cepeda
February 1, 2012
— Does your blood boil at the idea that a candidate for political office can be denied a spot on a ballot because of the inability to speak perfect English? Or does the boiling commence when someone suggests that elected officials don’t need to be proficient in the English language to carry on the business of American government?

It is possible for both impulses to be rooted in legitimate concerns. Consider Alejandrina Cabrera, a political activist and candidate for the San Luis, Ariz., City Council.


Last week, a judge ruled that her name be struck from the ballot because she does not know enough English to do the job—a determination made after a linguist had tested Cabrera and reported to the court that her language skills are at the “basic survival level” and not strong enough to conduct city business.


Lest you think that decision was part of some ethnically motivated coup, Cabrera herself has told reporters, in Spanish through translators, that she speaks little English but enough to get by because the border city of San Luis conducts so much of its daily business in Spanish.


Cabrera is a U.S.-born citizen who, tragically—and like so many other U.S.-born Spanish speakers that get put into segregated Spanish-only classrooms—graduated from an Arizona high school barely able to speak English. That and her mostly Spanish-speaking surroundings have kept her from becoming involved in government, a fundamental right of citizenship.


Many people have taken to social media networks to express outrage that Cabrera was taken off the ballot. This reaction has to do with the feeling that immigrants, and very specifically Latinos, are discriminated against in this country and language is just another test that “those in power” use to flunk Hispanics out of ever gaining any clout for themselves. It is undeniable that not speaking accent-free-English marginalizes those who have worked immeasurably to learn our complex tongue.


Well-documented studies during the past two decades have found that people who speak English with a foreign accent are perceived to be less intelligent, in general, and less professional in a workplace. Not only that, but in some instances listeners have even reported perceiving an accent where there is none because of skin color or facial features. In 2010, a University of Chicago study found that a sample of Americans who were asked to listen to statements from native and non-native English-speakers thought that statements spoken with foreign accents were less truthful.


But those who are passionate about making English the official language of the United States cannot understand why anyone would be threatened by the premise that the country be bound by a single language.


It’s obvious how the politics of bilingual education and of whether official forms, ballots or other types of government services should be available in multiple languages have blunted English language acquisition in this country. We actually fight about whether the most important thing we can do for every student in the public school system is to ensure that they graduate with fluency in English.


When Republican presidential candidates discuss English-only initiatives during debates, some people imagine the dark ages when—prior to public schools offering bilingual or other-language education to English-language learners—children and parents were instructed to not speak to their families in their native language at home and were expected to sink-or-swim in classrooms with no assistance.


But these candidates, the vanguard of an issue that has steadily been threatening to rear its ugly head again, might find that there is middle ground to tread. The Republican hopefuls can champion English as the official language of the country while exalting the important role that all foreign languages have in enriching American culture. They should stress not only how important it is to become fluent in English but also how vitally important it is to learn second languages and be bilingual in our global economy. This, at least, would make some of their Spanish-language campaign ads seem less hypercritical.


But ensuring that everyone in our society has the ability to speak the same language and take advantage of the opportunities this skill affords should not be a partisan issue. If we had put more effort into ensuring that every public school student had the equal chance at becoming fluent in English, Alejandrina Cabrera’s voice could have been destined to lead her constituents in San Luis, and perhaps beyond.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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