Thursday, June 29, 2006

English Only

Recently, another blogger posted about the controversy surrounding Geno's Steaks and the owner's "English Only" sign. The blogger, much to my dismay, agreed wholeheartedly with the incredibly intolerant sign. It's fascinating to me that those who claim to be "good religious folk" are often the first ones to kick the less fortunate to the curb, but that discussion is for another time.

The controvesy reminded me of a paper I wrote a few years ago for my Multicultural class while obtaining my teaching degree. I'm not one to stand on a soap box on my blog, but I decided to throw caution to the wind and post my paper. Ironically, while checking sources for this post, I found this priceless little item. It seems that in 1965, Geno's was an "Italian Only" restaurant - not only were the menus written in Italian - but Italian was the only language spoken. In other words, if you didn't know Italian, you were shit out of luck in 1965 Geno's. I can't help but wonder what language the 2045 Geno's will insist on.

The English Only Debate

The debate for and against English Only laws has been raging for as long as the United States has been in existence. Are English Only laws a beneficial paradigm that will unify a nation? Or are they a detrimental scheme that will divide it? Ever since the first colonists came to America and claimed it as their own, this country has been a multilingual nation. In the early days of America, it was not uncommon to hear as many as 20 languages spoken on a given day. Languages such as French, German, and Dutch were as common as English. In fact, so prevalent was the use of German that even the Articles of Confederation were printed in both English and German. As the nation’s population diversity grew during the 19th and 20th centuries, so did the diversity of its languages. The more the diversity grows, the more people argue over the concept of English Only laws. But what exactly are English Only laws? And more importantly, who will the laws effect?

English Only laws vary from state to state. Some statutes simply declare English as the "official" language of the state. Others limit or ban non-English language assistance and services normally provided by local governments. Examples include restriction of bilingual education programs, denying multilingual ballots for elections, and prohibiting non-English government services in general -- such as courtroom translation services and multilingual emergency police lines. At this point in time there are 16 states that have English Only laws - including Florida and California – both of which have some of the largest populations of immigrants in the country. While English Only laws primarily apply to government programs, there are some laws that extend to the private sector as well; in some Southern California cities it is forbidden to use foreign languages on private business signs.

In 1780, John Adams proposed to the Continental Congress that an official academy be created to "purify, develop, and dictate usage of," English. His proposal was rejected as undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty. This was the first example of an English Only law in America. In the early 19th century laws were again proposed, mostly in response to massive waves of immigration. The laws were an attempt to “Americanize” the immigrants. In the early 1980s, again during a period of concern about new immigration, a movement started to seek the establishment of English as the nation's official language. This movement had some success, resulting in many of the current English Only laws now in place. At present, for the first time in history, an English Language Amendment to the Constitution has been proposed.

As always, there are two sides to every argument. I dislike the concept of “English Only” to the exclusion of all other languages, especially when it comes to the private sector. The idea of the government telling people what language they can put on their own business signs smacks of a violation of free speech. I also disagree with the concept of the government not providing services to those that do not speak English. Is that only directed at immigrants? What about foreign visitors? Must they learn English to simply visit our country? Should a person not be entitled to emergency services because he or she can’t speak English? How far does this go? Wasn’t this nation founded on immigration? Because unless you are a Native American, you are an immigrant - be it first, second, third, or tenth generation.

On the other hand, I can see the point of English Only laws – to a certain extent. Almost every nation on earth has an official language. Why can’t the United States declare English as its national language? Why do we spend excessive amounts of time and energy bending over backwards for every cultural group in this country? Are we, as a nation, allowed to have an American identity and culture of our own? What is wrong with expecting people to assimilate to this society? I lived in Italy for a short time, and I assumed the customs and traditions of this country because it was my choice to place myself in this culture.I did not completely lose my American identity, and nobody expected me to. But I did learn enough of the language to get myself around, and I did make an effort to assimilate myself in my new surroundings. Some of the areas I spent time in had a lot of people that spoke English, and I was always grateful when these people would help me. But there were many rural areas where English was not spoken, and you know what? I dealt with it. I did not expect them to do for me – I was the foreigner, and I respected the fact that I needed to speak Italian in order to make myself understood.

Both arguments have their valid points. I think the problem is that people take extreme sides of this argument. Why not declare English as the official language of the United States, and yet still allow for other languages to be a part of our national culture as well? We live in a nation that is multilingual; there is no denying it. Why does everything have to be so extreme? Can’t we all meet somewhere in the middle? Or as the saying goes – can’t we all just get along?


One year ago today: the infamous Accidental Flash.


sleepydog said...

Su ensayo se escribe muy bien.

Usted es también muy bonita, por la manera.

Or, as the French say: You da bomb.

Brookelina said...

Thank you Sleepy, I seriously doubt anyone will actually read this.

Tim said...

I think the whole controvery is overblown. I'd venture to guess there's a lot more businesses out there with that same sticker in the window. I doubt it was the only sticker produced.

Plus, Pats is better anyway.

sleepydog said...

Well, I read it, and I'm somebody.

Kind of.

The reason your blog is one of my favorites is you have a lot of interesting things to say about a lot of different things.

That and you're one sexy lady who says hoo-hah and twat.

I get so excited sometimes that laser beams shoot out of my ears, and it's all your fault.

darth said...

wonderful :)

Bill said...

It's interesting seeing this as an issue of sorts in the U.S. since language is a favourite topic to kick around here in Canada where we're officially bilingual. Also, given the way most people use the English language, "English only" is a very debateable phrase. What exactly does that mean?

It's all moot anyway. One day we'll all be speaking some variation of Chinese. (I think Kurt Vonnegut has a book about this somewhere.)

Flounder said...

The idea of the government telling people what language they can put on their own business signs smacks of a violation of free speech.

Brookie, you're making my point!

Joe has the right to refuse service to anyone he pleases, although he has not ever done so.

For the record, I don't think that I ever called for English as a national language. I actually agree with many of your points, but the bending over backwards for every cultural group in this country is getting ridiculous.

Doncha think?

Blonde Vigilante said...

I think it scares people that they may become a minority. Anytime someone gets scared they are going to automatically defend themselves to the extreme. Do people really think that some guy that never learns to speak English is really going to take over the country? You aren't going to be a successful American without English and that may change one day, but the reality is its just a language. What's the real threat? (Who moved my cheese?)

I really don't see what the big deal is. People speak different languages. While I'm not going to go out of my way to learn any languages at this point in my life and I don't think I should have to change for's not my problem. They are the ones that can't communicate with is to their detriment, not mine.

Brookelina said...

Tim - I'm so glad somebody finally said that! But I admit, I'm a South Jersey girl, we don't do hoagies. PS - I love the name of your blog.

Sleepydog - I can't take credit for hoo-hah. That one was a favorite of a blogger who has retired. Oh how we miss him. Her. It's a little confusing.

Darth - thank you. :)

Bill - good thing we all know enough Chinese to order take-out, otherwise we would be totally screwed.

Flounder - I said that I agreed with you up to a point, but that's the difference between us - I see both sides of a situation. The fact is, just because he has the right to put that sign up, doesn't mean he is right for doing it.

Blonde - I agree. Learning English will definitely help immigrants, but is it necessary for people to refuse service or belittle them if they haven't done so?

TinaPoPo said...

Brooke, it's amazing how much outrage and debate that sign has caused in the Philadelphia area. I hate the message of the sign, but I do believe the owner of Geno's should be able to post it. Even though he's obviously a huge asshole and his cheesesteaks suck.

Egan said...

Brooke, you're my hero. I've said it many times before, but you're the shiznit.

I'm going to call Geno's today and talk to them in French and see how that goes over. Should be very fun. I already pestered them with an email in French. English Power!

*P.S. - isn't English a borrowed language we adopted as our own? Huh.

Lo Lo Lova said...

Brooke, you should have posted this in English AND French :) Just kiddin!

I read your paper and liked it very much.

I would also like to state, for the record, that is embarrassing that you can go to Italy and meet many, many people who speak Italian AND English, but certain people who live in the good ole USA can't even speak English. Let alone be bilingual. I think it's a shame our society is not more accepting of multiple languages, let alone different races of people!

Sysm said...

Courage to the left of me. Fear to the right.
"English only" laws, like flag burning and gay marriage laws, are a play to people's fears. They overstate (or invent) a problem, in order to shore up constituencies.

The people behind these laws don't believe in them any more than you do. They're branding. Positioning. Praying on the stupid. The intolerant. The easily manipulated.

All groups define themselves by what they are and what others are not.

When we debate these things, seriously, we validate their premises. Which is bullshit. We should laugh off the debate, and call these people on their pandering and fear-mongering.

BTW - I've taken to talking to the Sysmidgets in half-remembered high school Spanish. For hours at a time. It bugs the crap out of them, but they're picking a bit of it up, through context more than anything.

JJ said...

His effort may be club footed but I do believe that making it too easy to speak your own language in your new country has a tendency to isolate you and make it harder to integrate with society.

When I lived in Italy, there wasn't a single English sign in site and no one spoke anything but Italia. I became proficient in a hurry.

Brookelina said...

Tina - obviously he's an asshole. And I'll bet his grandparents are rolling over in their graves.

Egan - shiznit. Is that French? Thanks babe!

Lo Lo - my main problem with all of this is that its core, it's all about intolerance.

Sysm - I'm not 100% with you on this one. The laws will decide the services that are provided for non-English speakers - and those services are paid for with your tax dollars.

Brookelina said...

JJ - exactly. But I don't think he is really helping people with a sign like that. The only person it has helped is himself - lots of publicity.

Anita said...

I'm glad I took a large, gooey shit before coming here because this issue leaves me so mad it constipates me.

Brooke our individualistic consumerism has led us to this point. I agree that the problem is not that the sign is up - I'll defend to my death the right for that sign to be up - what pisses me off is that consumers will not unite and NOT FUCKING EAT THERE because it's assholish. (imagine whining) well, no I guess it's not right but I really like their pizza. Fuck that. Consumer power is a myth because most people are too selfish to act on business injustices. When the Wal-Mart uses unfair business practices DON'T SHOP THERE! I don't care if they have shampoo 50 cents cheaper - you will survive, I promise! I could go on and on with examples but I'll spare you because I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here.

Thanks for letting me bitch a little. Oh, and your pink, ruffledy skirt is riding up in the back.

Egan said...

Anita, that's a fantastic point. It's amazing how loud the old mighty dollar speaks. That's precisely how I feel too. I would much prefer to give Target my money than Wal-Mart. As you can tell this topic gets my blood boiling as well.

Brooke, tomorrow can you blog about homophobes to keep me nice and angry?

Brookelina said...

Anita - People won't stop going there because of this, believe me. The place is busier than ever. It's a sad commentary on intolerance.
And stop looking up my skirt.

Egan - tomorrow I'm going to post about a major crisis looming in America: public nose-picking.

Blonde Vigilante said...

No, no one should be belittled. If someone came up to me on the street and couldn't speak English I would do my damnest to try and help them with whatever it is they wanted. I'm a sucker like that.

I agree with Anita as well. The first thing about the sign that I thought was...why would you refuse to sell someone a'd be losing money (that's the business woman in me). Imagine if Wal-Mart put up a sign that read "Will not sell to Red-Necks or people with a southern accent." They would lose a lot of money.

Bottom line, you shouldn't alienate people. It's just silly.

sleepydog said...


And you though nobody would read your essay, O ye of little faith.

Hey, I wonder if they'd take your order at Genos if you ordered in "Olde" English

"Hark knave, prepareth me a concoction of sliced beefsteak and cheese at once! And darest not skimp on the curly fries either, or thou wilt have served thine last beefsteak concoction ever!"

Egan said...

Please do talk about public nose picking. I've breached the topic on my own blog, but most of my readers were grossed out. I shared what the inside of a men's bathroom stall looks like... it ain't pretty.

Fingernails, they're good for something.

Sysm said...

Okay Brooke, where do you need those ESL signs? Where there is a substantial population of non-English speakers. And they pay taxes. Sales tax. Real estate tax. I'm not talking about making things palatable for tourists and other visitors. I don't think it's that much of a "bending over backwards" situation to offer non-English services to non-English speaking residents.

Übermilf said...

I don't agree with posting a sign like that, although it is certainly his right. He risks alienating some customers, intimidating others... and Sysm is right, as usual. Damn that smart smug Sysm!

Like I said at Flounder's, I think immigrants should learn English -- but for their own good, not because they're forced. If they want to be stubborn about it, they'll be sorry.

Just like if someone's stubborn about their "English Only" stance -- they'll be sorry someday, too.

Flounder said...

I see both sides of situations, I just don't always think that the other side is valid.

I have friends (believe it or not) that won't eat at a Chic-Fil-A because it was founded by a Christian and they are closed on Sundays.

I can see their argument, I just don't agree with it. (Besides, their waffle fries are the bombay!)

Brookelina said...

Blonde - I would pay good money to see that sign up at Wal-Mart. But let's face it, most of them couldn't read it anyway.

Sleepy - I would like to see people go there and order in Italian. Is it ok to order in Italian?

Egan - nose-picking is serious business. Choose your side carefully.

Sysm - you do realize that there are approximately 336 languages spoken in the United States.

Brookelina said...

Ubie - I love that you are always a mom in every situation. It's for your own good dammit! And you're always right.

Flounder - well maybe they only eat artery clogging fast food on Sundays. That makes sense.

Think Frustrated said...


I gotta say, though, that I agree that, offensive and unintelligent as it is, Geno's has the right to refuse service if they so please. The fact that we are all different is what makes this country great. Some people speak Spanish, some people are assholes. It takes all sorts...

I used to work in a bank that served a majority of Polish-speaking customers (in Chicago, we have a larger native Polish population than Warsaw, Poland). I learned some Polish to help take care of customers, but our bank had a rule of English only in the break rooms, etc. Only to use another language when it's for the benefit of the customer. Then, the bank had to retract this rule as someone tried to sue them. The result: I would sit in the breakroom while everyone gabbed in Polish, not really understanding a word. They could have been ripping me apart (and I know for a fact that a few were). That really used to make me feel uncomfortable. I used to equate it with whispering in someone's ear, right in front of someone else; that third person almost assumes you're talking about them. But, I also agreed that it is their right to speak any language that they pleased. I just found it to be rude and in poor judgement to do what they used to do.

Sorry about the long post.

Think Frustrated said...

Oh, and I meant to mention that when Geno's was Italian only, that had to be bad for business.

Lo Lo Lova said...

Brooke - I agree completely that INtolerance is INexcusable. If it seemed that my point was going elsewhere, I apologize.

Brookelina said...

TF - Some people speak Spanish, some people are assholes. Classic!!

Lo Lo - no no no. I was just restating what you said! You nailed it babe!

MoDigli said...

MultiCultural is great. I always love learning about our unique traditions in all regions of our country - because they are usually descendant from some immigrant cultural group.

Declaring English as the official language is also great, I think. Because declarations or not, it's true. Our country does do everything in English. In fact, the entire business-world all over the planet uses English. Sorry to say it, but if you don't know it, lots of jobs are closed off to you.

BUT ... that doesn't mean that JUST knowing English is enough.

Personally, I love to learn. And you know what? If I moved to another country to start a whole new life, I'd jump right in and LOVE learning the new language! I'd probably suck at it for a long time, and still feel more comfie in English, but I'd keep learning. And if I can learn a new language, then how cool is it to have that skill?!!

PS. Worth metioning, too: here in San Diego, I've only run into non-english speakers 3 times: Once at Starbucks (and I just managed through with what I knew in Spanish), and twice at school. But at school it was 2 children who JUST arrived from Mexico! And they had already begun learning!!

(That Genos place is just stupid!)

jungle jane said...

i love your paper Brooke - i am going to give you a mark of 95%. And a gold star. No - two gold stars.

I have lived in 3 entirely multicultural countries. One of them was brutal and suffered intense tribal warfare, one of them works just great and one of them kind of hasn't really addressed the issue and just ambles along.

i grew up with 3 official languages - signs were in 3 languages, forms to fill in and even television was divided into 3 languages. i can't remember it hurting terribly much but i am very happy that i can communicate with all of my former countrymen.

~d said...

God, I WISH I spoke another language! What a leg UP I would have! I have to holla at Anita, too-DAMN good point-and Flounder...interesting comparison, but true nonetheless.
Oh, and like sleepydog, I read this. And I am somebody.

Bill said...

MoDigli: I can't believe you said the business world uses English. You call that English? I pay the rent by translating that horseshit into something normal people can understand.

Mind you, business doesn't speak French, or Chinese, or Greek either. They speak acronym and neologism and God-knows-what else. But it sure ain't English!

matty said...

I read it and think it is very well stated! I am in full agreement.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could all find a way to get along.

Humans. Sad.

American Republican Christian Fundamentalists -- just tragic.

Brooke - you seriously rock.

Brookelina said...

MoMo - I had several kids from different countries in my class this year. The ones that progressed the most and learned the fastest were the ones whose parents spoke - or were at least trying to speak - English. The one child whose mother absolutely refused to learn was held back. So I think I am for the English Only thing for the sake of the kids.

Jane - only 95%? What's up with that? I think it's so cool that you have lived in so many places and have managed to make each of them your home - and still you have avoided living in the US. Well done!

~d - I so wish that I had kept up with my high school and college French! It is sooooo much harder to learn a language when you get older, especially when you aren't using it every day.

Bill - actually half the Americans I deal with on a daily basis can't speak or write the language correctly. If people who have lived here their whole lives can't tell the difference between there, they're, and their, then how can a foreigner figure out this language?

Matt - I think someday we have to go out for coffee together so we can discuss issues of the world - and boygaze of course.

Anita said...

For reals brooke, I'm not kidding. Please just pull your skirt down in the back. Your eerie pale orificeless butt is starting to freak me out. Do I need to ask in Spanish?

Blonde Vigilante said...

How much would you pay me if I stood out in front of Wal-Mart with a sign that said that? I'll even take a picture.

Übermilf said...

One of the best things about the government as it was designed by the founding fathers was its flexibility.

If the people changed, the government should be able to change with them.

I don't think we should rigidly declare one language; I don't think the federal government should be involved in how people express themselves.

yournamehere said...

When I worked at an Organized Living in Nevada, my favorite customers were the Spanish speaking ones, because their bitching, moaning, and griping fell upon deaf ears; whereas the English speaking customers had the full ability to get on my fucking nerves.

I don't understand the Geno's controversy. It seems anyone can say the word "cheesesteak" regardless of their native tongue, just as my Southern-born ass can say "enchilada". It makes the owner seem like he has a problem with Hispanics, whether that's the case or not.

Denny Shane said...

When Geno's first opened in South Philly and they spoke only Italian, they did so because the neighborhood was 100% Italian. They had no choice. They were Italian and so were the customers.

But to their credit as time went on they did learn to speak English. And that's the point I think. They assimilated into the community and learned the language.

Many other's do not assimilate and want everything in their native languages. They're too lazy to learn English. So, the politicians, the (anything for a vote) gang... go around saying, "yes you're chinese and there's no reason to speak English... we'll put up signs for you in chinese... but you'll have to share them with the hungarian people who moved in and speak only hungarian..." Shrug

Cactus Prick said...

Like the new look. And the rant. I dislike intolerant people too. ESPECIALLY those fuckin Italians.