Why alienate non-English speakers?

A bill (SB 522) is going before the Okla. Senate seeking to restrict support for non-English languages within the state. The bill is authored by Sen. Ralph Shortey (R-Oklahoma City).

In a few of its several provisions, the bill prohibits officials from providing examinations for drivers or occupational licenses in non-English languages, bans “bilingual or bicultural education programs,” and requires that state agencies include expenses for supporting non-English languages in a separate section of their budget.

Though it does little to help the state prepare for these situations, the bill does acknowledge that there are some situations where Okla. needs to support non-English languages. Like when it’s dealing with its Native American population, and … uhm … when it’s dealing with its Native American population again.

Seriously, Oklahoma’s Hispanic population is completely absent from bill, probably because it is the bill’s intended target.
But I get ahead of myself. Let’s take a few of the bill’s arguments at face value.

First of all, news outlets like KTUL are quick to point out that the bill is simply implementing a 2010 amendment to the Okla. Constitution making English the official language of the state. Why Ralph Shortey would consider an amendment elevating the status of English incomplete unless it also restricts the use of other languages is beyond me.

Second, the bill also claims that “use of a common language … helps to unify the people of this state and the United States.”

This is an old argument, and it’s an argument that’s been discredited for quite some time. In 1986, when the newly formed lobbying organization U.S. English was pressuring states to adopt English as their official language, the American Linguistic Association released an official resolution decrying the so-called “English-only” movement.

“History shows that a common language cannot be imposed by force of law,” said the resolution, “and that attempts to do so usually create divisiveness and disunity.”

Now for the real question: what effect will this bill have on non-English-speaking communities in Oklahoma (i.e. exclusively Native Americans)? They’ll find barriers to running a business and to driving (don’t tell me the amount of English you need to read street signs is even close to the amount you need to pass a written exam). Each of these factors will make it significantly harder to make a living in America.

They will not be able to send their children to public bilingual schools (presumably, these schools teach English and Cherokee). If they are lucky, their children will be able to attend another English language learner program that has demonstrated effectiveness, but even then the burden will fall squarely on the community to preserve its own culture.

And worst of all, they can count on substantially fewer government organizations to provide them with support in a non-English language, since anyone who does so must say it in a special section of their budget. In a state that will do anything but raise taxes to balance the budget, having a separate list of translation-related expenses could cause an agency to be targeted for funding cuts. Count on it to deter agencies from spending the money they need to in order to support non-English languages.

The communities that will suffer from SB 522 are people who identify as Oklahomans. Most of them have lived in Oklahoma for a substantial portion of their lives. Our communities would not look the same without their presence enriching them. You cannot talk about “Oklahoma’s culture” without talking about them.

These Oklahomans are feeling pressure to learn English from their community and from the private institutions that drive Oklahoma’s economy. This is reasonable.

What’s not reasonable is for a policy maker to dictate that these Oklahomans undertake the lengthy process of learning English in order to participate in the state’s public institutions on even a basic level.

Ralph Shortey, who do you think you are?

Post Author: tucollegian

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