My Response to Emails Against my Opinion Piece on "English Only"

The following includes email responses to an opinion piece I wrote this month on English Only and the movement to declare English as the National language. It was sent out to various newspapers around the country by the Progressive Media Project (a version of it appeared in the September issue of The Progressive magazine). Newspapers that published the piece include the Dayton Daily News (Ohio), the Monterey Herald (California), the Providence Journal (Rhode Island), the Winona Daily News (Minnesota), among others. My previous blog post featured one of the articles. Following each email, I give my own response.

May I ask you what nationality you are and have you always lived in the United States? I read your article in today's Winona Daily News and I find it very objectionable. I am a citizen, 75 years old, born and raised in America. Now am I to learn 329 languages as you state in your article that are spoken in the United States so I can communicate with them? I read an article by an immigrant (and I don't recall her name, but it was in the Parade magazine that comes in the Sunday papers) that people coming to the US should learn English because if you are in trouble, whether it be medical, law or whatever, if you cannot speak the language how can we help you? Now does not that make sense? I am not against immigration only illegal immigration. My church has sponsored immigrants and the last ones from Bosnia I saw to it that they got to English classes every day so that they could communicate with people, get a job, etc. School districts have to hire extra teachers to teach English because parents refuse to speak English in their homes. This has put a strain on hundreds if not thousands of school districts to tackle this problem. What about health facilities, hospitals? Are they to hire people to speak every language so they can help people? You have to get real and use some common sense which it seems many people do not have any more. There is nothing wrong with speaking your native tongue but English should be also used in the home, etc. I am of Norwegian descent but they learned and had their children learn and use English as the common language. They had the right attitude.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for writing me about my article that appeared in your local newspaper. You wanted to know my nationality. I was born and raised in the United States. I speak perfect English and Spanish (I also know a little bit of Nahuatl, Raramuri, and Navajo). However, it appears you read the wrong article. For example, I did not say that everyone should learn 329 languages. I said that everyone should learn English. It is our common language. It links us. It has much merit even on its own terms. Most immigrants I know, regardless of the country they came from, agree with that. I even cited a survey of Latinos that showed the majority also believe they should learn English. As far as I know, there is no organized movement to change English as our common, unifying language. My problem is with the real, large and growing movement to make English a “national” language, which is linked to having English Only legislation in more than a dozen states. Having English as a common language and having English Only are two different things.

You said there is nothing wrong with “speaking your native tongue, but English should also be used in the home.” Fine. But English Only is the opposite of this – it implies there IS something wrong with speaking another tongue. My point is that we should all speak English (I’ve spent my life learning and writing English as a poet, journalist, fiction writer, and speaker). But, if anyone wants to speak his or her native tongue why not? People all over the world do this. This is not an attitude problem – people are quite adaptable, be they Norwegian or Guatemalan. Most people are willing to learn English. But we should not impose by law, by practice or prejudice any suppression of other languages or cultures. That’s my point. It’s what this country is supposed to be about – not English Only. I have seen how English Only laws actually suppress other languages. These are facts, and I can cite tons of stories of how this works. That’s what I’m against. And that’s common sense.

You couldn't be more wrong in your assertion that the US shouldn't be concerned about the infiltration of the Spanish language into our culture. You make the case for English only in your own article. You state "Some say the United States is the third-largest Spanish speaking country in the world" This is precisely the point. We are NOT a Spanish language country, we are English speaking. Our country was founded by people who spoke English and were of English descent. Our Constitution doesn't come in two languages, it's ENGLISH only! Anyone who comes here legally is welcome. However once here, you must assimilate into the English-speaking culture of the United States. We are a country of immigrants, LEGAL ones that once here might speak their native tongue at home but outside the home learned English and adapted to the U.S. culture. It doesn't work the other way around. I also don't recall Italian, German and other immigrants demanding their language be used in our schools, their language be used on commercial packaging etc. Illegal immigrants, mainly from Mexico have invaded our country and now demand we adapt to them. This is wrong and if it continues it will eventually cause the complete destruction of the greatest country in the world. I personally will continue to support and work for English only legislation.

Luis J, Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for writing me about my opinion piece that appeared in your local newspaper. However, I never said people should not use English (please re-read my article). I said English is our common, unifying language. Everyone should learn it. And while this is true, we are also the third largest Spanish-speaking country and have 329 languages, including 150 native languages, in our midst. Why can’t these two realities live side-by-side? It’s not either/or. I value English (I was born and raised in this country). But I also value Spanish (which my parents used as I grew up). I even know a few Native words. This is all good.

For your information, the first bilingual education schools were for German immigrants – they also suffered, as did other non-English speaking people, from attacks by those who wanted to impose English on them. This is wrong. We who are in this country are more than willing to adapt. But don’t devalue or suppress our other tongues and cultures. We are all “America.” Much of what is “American” culture comes from Natives, Africans, Germans, Irish, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Mexicans. We are adapting to a culture that has adapted from other peoples. That’s fine. I’m against laws that want to impose English and a mono-culture.

I also have to say, we are not all a nation of immigrants. I have Raramuri native blood (from my mother’s side), and Nahua, Spanish, and African blood on my father’s side. Native people’s were already here for tens of thousand of years; Africans were brought here as slaves. In fact, what the Mexican “invasion” is about is mostly native peoples on migrant treks they’ve been on for centuries upon centuries. Even Spanish is a foreign tongue to us (although I speak it well). There are 240 natives languages and their variants in Mexico. Many Mexicans coming across are indigenous people like Mixtecos, Yaquis, Huicholes, and Mayans (there are an estimated 2 million Mayans from Mexico and Central America in the US, almost as much as Native Americans). So the word “immigrant” doesn’t quite convey the reality of this situation.

Still, we are free to be united and to be together in this country, and to have a common language, interests, and aims. We don’t need laws to do that. Let’s keep it that way.

I just read your article "’English Only’ Campaigns Aren't Aimed at Bringing Unity, but Imposing Supremacy." As you say "HOGWASH". Who are you trying to kid? If immigrants want to come to the U.S. so bad, they should be willing to read and write our language, not the other way around. Why should OUR teachers have to learn their language since that would never happen if we immigrated to their country. Americans are paying out BILLIONS for their health care, etc, while our American poor are left behind. I also noticed your name was Rodriguez, so naturally, you obviously feel it is ok if they do not learn our language. It should become a necessity if they plan to stay here. If they do not want to learn our language to be able to speak or write, let them go back to the Country that they came from and then they can speak any language they want. Thank you for letting me vent my feelings and I am sure the feeling of MANY, MANY Americans.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for responding to my article in your local newspaper. However, you must have read the wrong article. I stated that everyone should learn to read and write English. I have spent my life making English my practice as a writer of ten books, including poetry, children’s literature, novels, short stories, nonfiction, and more. What I did say, however, is that we should also speak Spanish, Lakota, Filipino, Chinese, or whatever... if that’s one's interest. These other languages should not be suppressed. “English Only” means just that – that only English should be used.

I think everyone is already using English to speak to each other, and are more than willing to learn English if they don’t. We don’t need Congress to make laws for this – or any states to impose “English Only.” I have seen how this tends to devalue and suppress other languages and cultures (I cited one example in my article; I can give you hundreds more). When I first went to school, speaking only Spanish, I was swatted and otherwise punished. While this may no longer be the case in most schools, English Only schools today force people to speak English, or else (instead of helping them learn and accept English as part of their new life, without having to give up any other language to obtain it).

And if you have issues with billions of dollars for health care for the undocumented, maybe you can focus on the insurance companies, the health industry, and their cronies in the government who have made health care so costly for most people. Immigrants aren’t responsible for that. Health care for people without documents makes sense since any unwanted illnesses and diseases they get hurts all of us. If you’re concerned about the poor, fight for all the poor – with or without papers. The reason most people migrate to this country is that they are poor people to begin with. Taking up the interests of the poor, across borders, regardless of nationality, would help ALL the poor.

I read an article by Luis J. Rodriguez in the 1 Sep edition of the Dayton Daily News. Mr. Rodriquez states that what unites us as a country is not the language that we speak but the ideals we hold dear and that ‘English Only’ campaigns are designed not to bring unity but to suppress other languages. Later, he clearly contradicts himself by saying that the ability to speak Spanish is becoming a necessity in today’s America and that we all might as well face up to it. If having a single common language is not necessary to unite us as a country, then why is it a necessity for me to speak Spanish as well as English? In fact, this statement by Mr. Rodriquez is precisely the reason for ‘English Only’ campaigns. He does not make a similar statement about Japanese, Chinese, German and all the other languages that are quite commonly spoken in many areas throughout the United States. In fact, Mr. Rodriquez’s position is the one that would appear to suppress all other languages, except Spanish, elevating it to the same level of usage as English. Could he envision this as merely an interim goal? I agree that people should be allowed to learn and speak socially in whatever language they prefer and the more languages a person is able to learn and speak, the better off they will be. However, for a society to administratively function in a reasonable manner, as a minimum the United States clearly needs a single common language for conducting its essential business activities, including all aspects of our Federal, State and Local governments, our court systems, our insurance and health care systems, our financial institutions, licensing bureaus, contracting, energy, utilities, etc. That language has always been English. If the use of Spanish is allowed to achieve a legally preferable or acceptable status (equal right) in conducting these activities, they will become confusing, overlapping, more time consuming, perhaps dangerous and in some cases inoperable. This is in addition to the added expense of developing documents and performing tasks in duplication. This would certainly suppress rather than elevate all the other languages. Even without such legal status, it appears the current ability of many people to speak only Spanish when conducting or involved in such activities is already having this undesirable and expensive impact. Surely, this creates wedges of misunderstanding between us rather than uniting us. Perhaps the time to revisit the choice of English as the single common uniting language of the United States is when the majority of United States citizens speak Spanish socially as their first language and it makes sense to change the official language from English to Spanish, and the way things are heading, that may not be too far off. Still, the Chinese segment of our population is also growing rapidly, so who knows who may be in the majority in the future.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate your effort to convey your thoughts. However, I have to clarify a few points. English IS our unifying language. It’s the common language we all must know and share. However, this is not what this country is about – it’s peripheral to the real value of being here. What unites us, all of us, people of all races, colors, religions, and creeds, is the promise that everyone will be taken into account, that people can express themselves freely (with all the responsibilities this entails), and that access to whatever is needed to live full and complete lives will be available (and not subject to poverty, race, or immigrant status). It’s that promise that brings so many to these shores. We should celebrate this. This is not something we should horde, or only allow for a select few. However, for many places in this country, this promise is being betrayed. English Only is one of those detrimental things that we should move away from – in the more than two dozen states that have English Only laws, languages, cultures, and “otherness” tend to be suppressed. That’s wrong. English Only means just that – only English.

We should have a common language – English is it. But we should also be able to speak any other language if we so choose. I’m not saying that anyone should learn any other language—I did not say that Spanish at this time should be given equal status to English. Yet it would be helpful and quite smart (many Americans are already doing this) to learn Spanish, but it should not be made law or mandatory. In fact some Americans are learning Mandarin as well. There’s even a charter school in a predominantly Mexican LA community that teaches English, Spanish, Nahuatl (linked to the Aztecs), and Mandarin. Nothing wrong with that. That’s my point. Everyone should learn English. And if you want, pick up a Chinese dialect. Why not? But that’s a choice. English is fine, but why do we need laws to suppress other tongues?

First of all, your article refers to "the hysteria over Spanish-speaking people in the U.S." This is a ridiculous way to start the article. Due to the nature of my profession I encounter many people from all over the country on a daily basis and have not met a single person has a problem with anyone speaking their native language. That is not the reason for the idea of designating English as our country's official language. It is a problem when English-speaking children are falling behind in their education because schools must cater to demands that everything be presented in many native languages as well as English. Why should a non-English speaking citizen be permitted to take to take a written driving test in a language other English? Aren't most street and traffic signs using English? If I immigrated to France I would expect to learn French and learn it fast. The same goes for any country I visit. If there is a language barrier I know it is due to the fact that I did not properly prepare for my trip. No one I have come across seems to object to native languages being spoken, but a working knowledge of English should be a requirement for citizenship to this country. Therefore you comment the "English Only" campaigns are designed not to bring unity but to suppress other languages..." is inaccurate. And your view that "if we end up with an official language, we may have to reconsider names like Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota..." is inane and has nothing to do with the issue. You state that the ability to speak Spanish is becoming a necessity in today's America. Well, that precisely the reason we need an official language (and that does not mean that additional languages cannot be used in the private sector as I see that as a business decision). Will your opinion change years down the road when we have welcomed more Indian immigrants to this country? Or how would you feel if you lived in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood and your grandchildren had to kill time while public grade school teachers provided much needed language to non-English-speaking students? Finally, your mention of the incident at the airport book stand was ridiculous. A population should not be judged on this observation. This to me was just another example of inflammatory and inaccurate statements in your piece.'s funny to imagine if my great grandparents and the surrounding community of other German immigrants decided they needn't learn English. What an interesting part of Ohio it would be. But you know what? They and their children did learn English. And spoke their dialect of German at social occasions. And the community to this day still has a unique German-American atmosphere is intensely proud of their Germanic heritage.

Luis J. Rodriguez’s response:

Thank you for writing me about my article that appeared in your local newspaper. First, I have to point out that the hysteria is real; it’s not just my opinion. There are people punishing other people for speaking Spanish, yelling at them, and even passing laws that outlaw this (that’s what English Only laws do). There are now cities forcing landlords to get rid of long-time residents (mostly hard-working and law-abiding) to leave if they don’t have proper immigration documents, and where English is imposed in all public offices. There are people protesting schools with signs saying “Learn English or get the hell out!” (By the way, many of those signs were misspelled, like the one that called non-English people “morans” instead of morons.)

For years before bilingual education and civil rights laws that allowed for an acceptance of other languages, people were swatted or otherwise punished for not speaking English, including many native languages that came from this land. I know – when I first went to school in LA speaking only Spanish that’s what happened to me. Non-English speaking kids fell behind in their education because of this – in fact, bilingual education (and dual-language classes) have proven to help non-English speaking students with English and all other subjects. I can cite facts to prove this (it’s not true that having schools present things in other languages hurts their education).

I also said that English is our common language and everyone should learn it. I even cited a recent survey of Latino immigrants that showed the majority were more than willing to learn English. There is no organized or active movement against English in this country. What I’m against is the movement for English Only that suppresses other languages. And if you immigrated to France, you’d have to learn French, of course, but also English (and maybe another language or two). Most people in Europe speak more than one language, in particular English (I go to Europe and other countries on a regular basis, and this is generally the case). We happen to be one country, supposedly highly developed, where speaking more than one language is a growing problem. People in Mexico, Japan, and other countries have English courses as part of any major educational program.

And to address another of your points: I’ve lived in predominantly Chinese language schools in the East San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles (with the largest number of Asian people in the United States) and it never was a problem being among them. They were learning English and speaking Chinese. I knew English and also spoke Spanish. It seemed to work fine. Once the imposition of one language over others happens, however, that’s when the problems arise.

As for the anecdote at the airport, I didn’t make this up. It’s not a judgment against anyone but narrow-minded bigots. This should be brought out and seen for what it is. It’s not against “white” people or others who are not bigots (most “whites” I know aren’t). That statement is not ridiculous or inaccurate – that incident actually happened and it’s indicative of what we have to struggle against.

Finally, what you said about the German population in your part of Ohio is fine. I’m fighting for the same thing for Mexicans, Natives, and other peoples. Yes, learn English (it’s already happening – I’ve lived in immigrant communities for 52 years, believe me). But we should also maintain aspects of our cultures, languages, expressions, and aspirations if we want to. In time, these aspects have shaped and re-shaped what this country is about – which is not a monolith, nor should it be. We can have the common things, particularly our ideals and interests, and still have our differences. We can unite on the essential things, and be free to do what we want around the non-essential things. That’s my point (by the way, if English Only means what it says, Minnesota, Chicago, and other place names like Los Angeles would have to change—English Only laws only allow English in publicly- funded institutions. Again, that’s my point: Keep English as our common and mutually shared language AND stop any efforts to make English the only allowable language in our schools, courts, and government bodies).

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