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.