The hidden benefit of official-English laws
You’re in America. Speak English.
That’s what my parents say. And it’s exactly what they did when they came to this country from Czechoslovakia more than four decades ago, knowing nothing more than the lyrics to the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B.”
My parents would be all over the legislation passed this week — by the Board of Commissioners of Frederick County, Md. — making English the official language of a fast-growing and increasingly diverse place.
And why not? No driver’s test or school registration form or ballot was printed for my parents in Czech. If they wanted to live in the United States and prosper, they had to learn English.
In fact, all the immigrants I talked to in Frederick this week — people who came here from India, Nigeria, Vietnam and Pakistan — took the same position as my parents: They had to learn to function in English as soon as they hit American soil.
Hearing all of their stories, and knowing my own, I agree.
But touting universal English gives me pause because it puts me in the uncomfortable position of making common cause with xenophobes. The folks who pushed for this legislation in Frederick aren’t doing it because they want to commune with their new neighbors. They aren’t offering English immersion classes or anything else constructive.
Declaring English the official language is a backhanded slap at immigration and immigrants, usually aimed at Hispanics. It’s straight-up code for “Get out” from people freaking out because their town is starting to look less and less like them.
And it’s kind of funny that this is the tactic they choose, because the ability to speak fluent English is hugely empowering for immigrants.
Imagine Trung Huynh’s kitchen at the Lucky Corner restaurant in downtown Frederick if everybody spoke his native language.
Cooking and serving the caramelized pork pots, pho bowls and lotus salad orders would be nothing but a mess of confusion.
“I’ve got Pakistani, Indian, Vietnamese, Spanish. Nobody could do their jobs if we didn’t all speak English,” said Huynh, who came to America when he was 11.
He learned English in school and also studied Spanish. His parents took intense English courses for their first year here.
His father, Pha Huynh, worked his way up to become an executive chef, then opened his own restaurant, where his son is a manager.
“He could never do that if all he spoke was Vietnamese,” the son said. He sees that problem in other members of the Vietnamese community who are held back by their fear of English.
But his favorite example of that trap is a Latina employee who started as a dishwasher. She spoke almost no English, and for a while, Huynh spoke Spanish to her, until he began noticing she wouldn’t communicate with any other employees and was languishing in her job.
“I stopped it with the Spanish and began teaching her English, making her speak it,” he said. “Now she’s at the front of the house, talking to people, out there and making better money.”
This story rang my bell because it’s similar to how it happened with my parents, who also washed dishes and bused tables.
They struggled to rent an apartment, buy a car and wade through the mountains of paperwork I brought home from school every day, written in English and Spanish.
I was born here, but we spoke Czech at home. When I arrived at the local public school, they put me in an English as a Second Language class. It was in Spanish, and it didn’t last long.
Soon enough, our English got better because it had to. My parents advanced to the front of the house as servers, quickly making enough money to buy a house of their own. My teachers soon complained that I wouldn’t shut up in class. (Hard to believe, right?)
My parents weren’t lucky enough to have a boss like Huynh. Same goes for many other Latinos who live and work in downtown Frederick.
Go into any of the cute restaurants along downtown’s main drag and you’ll probably see white folks as the servers making the big tips and Latinos working in the back, doing the low-paying work.
Besides preventing advancement, shunning English creates factions in a county that is becoming more and more diverse.
“Language is the main thing in a culture and a society that brings people together,” said Syed W. Haque, a Frederick County doctor who came here from Pakistan in 1992.
He sees patients of many nationalities. He loves the sound of Spanish, the complexity of an Urdu poem and the quiet rhythm of the new English spoken by Burmese immigrants. But when it comes to aches and pains and illness, English is the only way to communicate clearly.
“In Pakistan, the multilinguistic tussles divided the country,” Haque said. “Language became one of the reasons for so many controversies. And it already divided us here in Frederick.”
It was a wicked fight in Frederick, leading up to the 4 to 1 vote this week by county commissioners to make English the official language. The tone of it was ugly and mean-spirited. But the point is right.