It is an ongoing reality that non-native speakers of English receive unfair treatment in this country because of the way talk. Language-based discrimination is especially prevalent in the workplace. In most cases, the victims of such prejudice are not randomly selected, but, rather, come from groups with high immigration rates who are seen as a threat to the white racial majority and a burden to the economy. Although employers defend English-only policies on the basis of worker safety, efficiency, and unity (1), such practices are often motivated by the desire to maintain the hegemonic position of whites in the United States.
It is easy to see that fear plays into people's consciousness when they hear a language other than English being spoken. For instance, two Hispanic women were fired from their jobs at the Long Life Home Care Service in Brooklyn for refusing to comply with their supervisor's request that they not speak Spanish anywhere on or near the grounds of the nursing home, even when they were on their breaks or walking to their car at the end of the day (2). In another case, one black and one gay employee charged that two Hispanic employees were speaking pejoratively about them in Spanish and should therefore be forced to communicate only in English (3). Such examples illustrate how language prejudices are often driven by mistrust of the speakers, rather than on concrete evidence that the individuals have done anything wrong.
It is also true that certain groups are targeted more than others, giving credence to the claim racial prejudice underlies many of the language complaints filed by employers. A phone-line set up in Houston, Texas, to take calls from victims of language-based workplace discrimination, claims that in one month it received one hundred phone calls from native speakers of Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Spanish, and French Creole (4). Furthermore, racism certainly played a role in a 1992 incident at the National Treasury, where five Filipino security guards were fired after a supervisor claimed to have had ongoing communication difficulties due to their accent (5). Interestingly, each of the guards had spent the majority of their lives in America, and it can be safely assumed, therefore, that they were highly competent speakers of English.
Conversely, there are no documented cases of discriminatory acts being filed against such groups as Swedish, Dutch, or Gaelic speakers (6). Thick accents of speakers from places like the British Isles tend to be viewed as charming, even when they cause considerable communication problems (7). Thus, it appears as though employers who file language-based job complaints are less concerned about the fact that English is not being used and more concerned about the person or country perceived to be behind the language or foreign accent.
The desire among Americans to retain their hegemony against waves of new immigrants is hardly a new phenomenon. Throughout history, preserving English as the dominant language in the US has been a symbolic and practical means of showing who is in control. Examples include the government's attempted eradication of Native American languages, the fact that it was illegal in Nebraska until 1923 to teach students a foreign language, and that in Texas students were prohibited from speaking Spanish in public schools until 1971 (8).
It is true that a great deal of effort goes into accommodating for immigrants' linguistic needs. In 1995, the state of Massachusetts offered driving tests in twenty-four languages, and Federal voting rights laws required ballots to be printed in several different languages (9). There is also the argument that by offering linguistic assistance to non-natives, governments are eliminating the need for them to learn English. However, with waiting lists of 20,000 to 40,000 people for ESL classes in the Los Angeles area (10), one can hardly make the case that that immigrants are not interested in learning English. It would be unfair to deny immigrants of materials in their own language, especially when they are on a waiting list for English classes.
Clearly, language discrimination is not merely the result of communication difficulties. With certain immigrant groups being targeted and not others, the issue is undoubtedly one of national or ethnic affiliation rather than language alone. It is important to recognize that English-only ideologies serve to mask underlying prejudices against specific groups of immigrants and take action to insure that "language" no longer serves as enough justification for firing an employee. Only when these realities are accepted by the public will policies change in a more tolerant direction.
(1) Cantu, Tony, "No Se Habla Espanol," Hispanic (March 1998): 48-50.
(2) Ojito, Mirta, "Bias Suits Increase Over English-Only Rules," New York Times, 13 April 1997, p. B1.
(3) Cantu 48-50.
(4) Ojito B1.
(5) Lippi-Green, Rosina, English with an Accent (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 226.
(6) Lippi-Green 239.
(7) Lippi-Green 239.
(8) Headden, Susan and Linda Rodriguez Bernfeld, "One Nation, One Language?" US News & World Report (25 September 1995): 38-42.
(9) Headden and Bernfeld 38-42.
(10) Torres, Joseph, "The Language Crusade," Hispanic (June 1996): 50-53.