Why California Needs to Take Bilingualism Seriously

Why California Needs to Take Bilingualism Seriously

Why California Needs to Take Bilingualism Seriously

Language rights, immigration, and identity formation are intrinsically linked.


With US Attorney General Jeff Sessions suing outgoing Governor Jerry Brown’s administration over its self-declared sanctuary status and the national media paying rapt attention to its June 5 primary, California is, increasingly, a bellwether of the national left. But does the state have the clear political and cultural vision that the left so desperately needs?

California’s gubernatorial race has focused on education and on the economy—all the typical talking points—but we haven’t heard a more robust discussion of how Californians think about belonging and identity. To fully realize this discussion, we need to consider language rights, as they are central to how any state is supportive of diversity. Improving access to bilingual education—as the state did in 2016 by passing Proposition 58—is not enough. Embracing bilingualism fully by adopting Spanish as a second official language should be on the table as we try to broaden our imagination of, and legislation on, who belongs.

The United States has a strange relationship to language rights. Although the federal government has no official language, in recent decades individual states—California included—have adopted English as an official language, largely in response to a puzzling English-only movement. But, of course, English is not the only significant American language. One-third of California’s residents speak Spanish at home.

Despite not having an official language, the United States has historically required immigrants to have English skills. It was only in 1906 that speaking English became necessary for naturalization. Suddenly, after more than a century of a more open language policy, not knowing English meant being a foreigner. In 1950, legislation was tightened, requiring immigrants to demonstrate English reading and writing skills in order to naturalize. Requiring newcomers to be familiar with English did not change the fact that English was already the de facto language for most of the country, but it did serve an exclusionary function of dissuading certain groups of immigrants and alienating the Americans who were not Anglophones.

I was raised in New Brunswick, Canada’s only bilingual province. Just like the States, Canadian provinces adopt their own official languages. While the federal government recognizes English and French, New Brunswick is the only province that does the same. What this means for New Brunswick is that all provincial services, in addition to federal services, are provided in both languages. Even getting your driver’s license and applying for hunting tags can be done in French.

Though education in French is common across the country, it is only in New Brunswick that the government recognizes the right to distinct educational institutions. While much of the population is bilingual, it’s important that the law allows for the 30 percent of Francophones to move through the public sector in their native tongue. Prominent public intellectuals like Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor have shaped Canadians’ understanding of these policies, emphasizing that the state does not have a neutral role when it comes to identity formation.

The current model in California disenfranchises 10 million native Spanish speakers—a third of the state’s population. The state’s official stance tells them that there is no room for their language in the political sphere and that Spanish is not a legitimate public language, making Spanish speakers sound like foreigners. There is a reason my grandfather did not teach French to my mother: He did not want her to have a French accent. Only a couple of generations ago in New Brunswick, the class divide was drawn along linguistic lines. The dynamic is not the same today, and the legislation of bilingualism in 1969 certainly played a part in engendering that shift. If the California legislature operated in both languages and if every law were published in both languages—as was the case for the first 30 years of the state’s Constitution, after the Mexican-American war—Latinos, who represent 38 percent of the state’s adult population but only 18 percent of those most likely to vote, would likely feel a greater desire for political participation as well as a greater sense of belonging.

What if there was a greater expectation for politicians to speak Spanish? What if there were a Spanish-speaking university in California? Adopting Spanish as a co-equal language would legitimize Latinos’ historical and cultural importance in the state, and it would also bring more attention to pressing issues—jobs, education, health care—that disproportionately affect Latinos today. While the state does provide some services in Spanish already, it’s at times more for the image than for real equality. It’s telling that the Spanish translation of John Chiang’s campaign website lacks, presumably out of neglect, a translation of what should be the most important part: his policy page.

Bilingualism would not solely benefit Latinos. It is in everyone’s interest to live in a state that does not politically and culturally marginalize a third of its population. In 2016, Proposition 58, the California Multilingual Education Act, passed easily with 73 percent of the vote. This is a sea change from 20 years ago, when Californians passed Prop 227, a bitterly debated anti-bilingual-education law, and suggests broad support now for bilingualism. Especially in today’s racially divided, anti-immigrant landscape, a bilingual California would show that we can alter American identity—as represented by the government—so that it is closer to reality.

The English-only movement makes economic and political-unity arguments, but those arguments are thin cover for anti-immigration and racist sentiment. One of the original founders of the English-only movement in the 1980s, John Tanton, was a strong opponent of immigration and was accused several times of making blatantly racist comments. The movement continues to have force today. Most recently, Senator Inhofe brought forth the English Language Unity Act in February. It’s worth highlighting that this law is not just an endorsement of the English language, but a rejection of the use of any other language in government. I doubt Americans are somehow distinct from the rest of the world in their ability to operate in more than one language. This suggests that the English-only movement really masks something deeper: a misconstrued sense of what builds a community and makes a citizen truly a citizen.

Stripping the right of 10 million Californians to use their first language in political life is not equal treatment. The desire to maintain an English-only government arises from a desire to keep certain people out of political life, and from a flat-out wrong image of the ideal Californian. Hawaii and Alaska recognize languages other than English. New Mexico’s language history is similar to California’s, and it increasingly conducts political business, including political debates, in Spanish. If California—the largest state in the nation, with the biggest economy—adopted bilingualism now, it would force a national reckoning of what it means to be American and whether a Spanish speaker can say affirmatively, “Soy americano/a.”

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