Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Above is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Whether someone was born in the United States or naturalized here, this rule applies to everyone, and it does so for everyone’s benefit.
But why is it that those who make the most noise about their own First Amendment rights are the least protective of free speech for others?
Since 2015, when President Trump began articulating his “America First” agenda, there has been a visible increase in tensions between English and non-English speakers. These tensions range from demands that only English be spoken inside U.S. borders to phone calls to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to have people deported.
A product of multilingual parents raised in a household in which Yoruba and Haitian Creole were both spoken daily, I find these attitudes mean-spirited and shortsighted.
In August 2015, a customer in a Los Angeles IHOP openly berated another customer for addressing her own son, privately, in Spanish. “This is America,” she said, “we speak English in America.” The situation ended with the Spanish woman breaking down in tears, explaining how she “can speak English too” and how she works hard just like everyone else; being able to speak Spanish doesn’t make her less of a U.S citizen. When the stranger was called out by the Spanish woman’s son, who recorded the incident in a now widely shared video, she said that it was her First Amendment right to speak up and say something if she wanted to.
But what about the First Amendment rights of the Spanish-speaking woman?
I fully understand that the first customer had the right to say what she thought; even entitled and obnoxious commentary is fully protected under the First Amendment. What I don’t understand is why it’s a problem when a non-English speaker practices their First Amendment right. Aren’t they “speaking freely” too?
This isn’t an isolated incident. Why is it when a foreigner talks in their native tongue, they’re looked down upon, told to change, and berated in public – simply for speaking?
The fact is many citizens indeed prefer to speak a language that isn’t English. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 21.6 percent of U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home. There are about 325.7 million people living in the U.S. That’s every 1 in 5 people.
We should also remember that United States has never had an official language. Although separate states have declared themselves English-speaking states, our country as a whole has never claimed an “English Only” rule. So I’m not sure why we are forcing non-English speakers to abide by rules that don’t exist.
Despite what many Americans like to tell themselves, the truth is, “the United States historically has been a polyglot nation containing a diverse array of languages,” as sociologists Rubén G. Rumbaut and Douglas S. Massey put it. Rumbaut and Massey point out that “at the time of independence, non-English European immigrants made up one-quarter of the population and in Pennsylvania two-fifths of the population spoke German.” In fact, according to their research, “perhaps a third or more of all Americans spoke a language other than English” at the time of the nation’s founding.
So it doesn’t make sense to me why some U.S citizens value not only themselves but the English language over everything else when there are so many languages and different types of people that exist in this country – so many languages to learn and people to learn from.
And when the President himself forces his America First agenda on the public by deporting “foreigners” and refugees seeking help, as he has almost since he took office, insult comes clearly to injury.
On April 4, 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union placed an ad on the Reuters Digital Tower at 3 Times Square of the First Amendment – in Spanish, English, and Arabic. The ads were part of a campaign to raise awareness about First Amendment rights and to “remind people that the Constitution is for all of us. It doesn’t matter who you are or what language you speak.” The ACLU wanted to make it clear not only to our president, who “has shown disdain for the rights and freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment,” but to other Americans who follow his suit as well, that the phrase “‘We the People’ means everyone.”
The ACLU and I aren’t alone in this belief, but sometimes it’s hard to think otherwise.
I remember the first time I listened to a song in Korean. I loved it; without understanding the language, I felt like I understood how it was supposed to make me feel, and it made me want to learn more about the language and what drove that artist to write that way. However, when I showed my mother, despite all her multi-lingual experience, she made a face and said, “Why isn’t it in English?”
And it wasn’t just her. I showed my friends, and they all asked me, “Why would you listen to a song you can’t understand?” One actually told me, “maybe you have a bit of Korean in you, that’s why you like that music.”
This reaction wasn’t extreme or hateful like America First, of course. Neither my friends nor my mother were trying to be being mean-spirited or xenophobic. But talk like this has the power to grow into something more dangerous. Why is it that unfamiliar languages are looked down upon? Why is it that voluntarily listening to someone speaking a language you don’t understand is considered weird or wrong?
After all, isn’t that the way you begin to understand?
Pam Toussaint is a freshman Creative Writing and Cinema and Screen Studies dual major at SUNY Oswego with a minor in International Business.