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Soto: We should not denigrate English learners while padding our résumés with second languages

Isabella Soto, Assistant Opinion Editor

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During Winter Break, news outlets reported that an older woman in a Kentucky JCPenney went on an angry, hate-fueled tirade directed at two Latina shoppers. The woman’s vitriol was deeply rooted in racist rhetoric, she assumed they were “probably on welfare” and brazenly told them to “go back to wherever the f–k you come from.” The whole video is jarring and deeply unsettling to watch, but one thing in particular struck me. After one of the shoppers apologized, a slight accent in her voice, the older woman said:

“Speak English. You’re in America.”

The United States has no national language. There have been efforts to introduce a Constitutional amendment declaring a national language but none have passed, although several states have passed their own respective legislations declaring English the state language. While we are a nation with a primary language of English, there is no official mandate claiming that English is the national language and certainly no mandate claiming that English is the only language deserving of respect.

The United States has a history of racist English-only laws, such as California’s Proposition 227, which in 1998 effectively eliminated bilingual education and forced Limited English Proficient (LEP) students into English-only classrooms.

Though recently repealed by voters in November 2016, Proposition 227’s presence in the public school system was a response to anti-immigrant sentiments in the late 1990s and a way of forcing English-language assimilation on countless students, despite the fact that studies show both native English students and LEP students fare better when a two-language approach is taken.

The ideology behind these laws extended far beyond state lines. I remember some of my South Texan teachers — who had grown up in the age of English-only laws — describing how they would be promptly smacked across the hand with a ruler if caught speaking Spanish on the playground. No one should be punished for speaking the language in which they feel most comfortable.

Many American universities, NU included, implement language requirements into degree plans to give us a competitive edge when applying to internships, fellowships, universities and jobs.
Society also stresses the importance of teaching English native-language children new languages when they are most receptive to them in order to achieve language proficiency, yet we don’t worry about those who may be working to learn English as a second language with the same level of frequency. We cannot prioritize learning languages for our own benefit while at the same time demonizing those learning English for the first time.

My first words were in Spanish. Both of my parents were first fluent in Spanish and learned English when they moved to the United States in adulthood, yet even after over 25 years in this country, my mother still faces criticism for her accented English. Spanish is centrally important to my family and cultural life, as is English. At NU I also learned French, mostly to pad my résumé, and I did so knowing I would never be criticized for speaking French in the United States. We must not fall into the hypocritical belief that certain languages warrant respect and others are only seen as indicators of a struggle to assimilate.

As we enter the Trump presidency, we seem to be entering an era in which there is less tolerance for difference of any kind, including linguistic. The woman in the JCPenney video even cited Trump to justify her rant.

For immigrants everywhere, language is often central to communicating with family, preserving culture and retaining a notion of home in a new country. Chicago, by law, includes English, Spanish, Chinese and Hindi on its voting ballots and offers additional voting services in Polish and Korean. Voting in this country is considered by many to be the ultimate expression of citizenship and integration into American society. All considered, why is it so difficult to dispel the notion that speaking a language other than English is somehow “un-American”?

In shaming people into abandoning their native languages and adopting English, we do not live up to our status as a diverse nation of immigrants, and we infringe on the many cultures and identities that make up our society. We must understand and accept that, while we may not all speak the same language, this diversity helps enrich American culture and make the United States the country it is.

Isabella Soto is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.