The first time I felt pressured to learn English, I was 4 years old and enrolled in a preschool program in Chicago. Having only been exposed to Spanish in my household, I was a complete stranger to the language my peers spoke.
My teacher, a first-generation immigrant, understood my tendency to isolate myself in class, and often invited my older sister to help translate for me. But I knew I couldn’t avoid this new language forever.
One day, when I realized I badly needed to use the bathroom, I forgot the words to ask permission in English and burst into tears. In that moment I felt overwhelmed and afraid. Thankfully, my teacher guessed correctly what it was that I needed and walked me to the bathroom.
I’ll never forget those first days I was exposed to the English language. If it hadn’t been for the kindness of teachers and accommodations made by those around me, I would have had a much harder time adjusting to a world in a strange tongue.
The fear I felt at the time was the same fear my grandmother felt when she first arrived to the United States at the age of 70. At that age, it was much harder for her to learn a new language, and she often preferred to stay at home so that she could avoid getting stuck at grocery stores or train stations, unable to find what she needed or her way home. These days, she still struggles with the language, but she’s worked hard to remember basic words in case of emergencies.
It’s no secret that learning English is essential when you live in the United States. It would behoove policymakers to remember that the principle of remaining open to all languages and embracing those who haven’t mastered the dominant language is equally essential in this country.
In Michigan, 78.8 percent of immigrants speak a language other than English, while 40.3 percent speak English less than “very well.” That’s more than 250,000 Michiganders struggling to navigate English-dominated communities.
With so many still having a hard time navigating their communities, you can imagine my frustration when I heard about the passage of House Bill 4053, a bill that would make English Michigan’s official language.
The bill passed the House in February, and was passed out of the Judiciary Committee of the Senate on March 21; the bill now awaits a vote in the full Senate.
The bill would (rather redundantly) make English the language used for public records, public meetings and official acts of state.
Here is what the bill will not do: prohibit the teaching of foreign languages in schools; apply to English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction in schools; prohibit the use of other languages in the promotion of international commerce, tourism, sporting events or cultural events; or prohibit the use of terms of art or phrases from languages other than English.
Official documents and forms would be printed in English, as they are now, but agencies and local units of government would continue to have the option of making official documents available in languages other than English for various reasons.
The bill would also not apply if it is ever in conflict with federal law, or if public health, safety or justice requires the use of languages other than English. According to analysis by the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, the bill cannot, for example, violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which maintains meaningful access to federally funded public services and programs for individuals with limited English proficiency.
Given the bill’s limited scope, it’s unclear what real purpose it would serve other than a symbolic rejection of non-English-speaking Michiganders and those with limited proficiency.
Instead of wasting everyone’s time with unnecessary and polarizing anti-immigrant bills, policymakers should consider ways our state can expand access to ESL services for adults who need them, and ensure that state agencies are meeting federal standards in language access in all services and programs.
On March 21, the Senate Judiciary Committee took another unfortunate step forward on this bill, reporting it out to the full Senate for consideration.
Let’s make sure our state-elected officials know that making English the official language will not move us forward toward progress. Let’s keep working hard to make Michigan a welcoming state for all. ¡Si se puede! (It can be done!)
Victoria Crouse is a policy fellow for the Michigan League for Public Policy. She wrote this for Bridge Magazine.