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Why Government in Spanish Actually Hurts Hispanics

Over the last fifty years, our government has attempted to, in the name of tolerance, multiculturalism, and empathy, print as many things as it can in Spanish as well as English. Subway signs, voting ballots, Medicaid forms, public school posters, you name it. What could be more compassionate to a large population of immigrants who aren’t familiar with English? Why should society discriminate against other cultures and ethnicities? English isn’t even this country’s official language! This view, in the name of benevolence, has actually done more harm to the Hispanic community than good.

While tutoring at I.S. 143 down the street from YU, I have observed firsthand a school which executes this viewpoint. Nearly all the teachers and administrators are bilingual, and most official documents are also printed in Spanish. In turn, the children at the school realize that they do not really need anything more than a coarse English to get by. Hallway monitors will frequently revert to Spanish when disciplining a student. Children feel no need to help their parents adjust to English when the parents can navigate the entire school system in their mother tongue.

And the results show for themselves. The kids I tutor speak only an “urban English,” and cannot aptly express many concepts in the basic language our society uses to function. Sometimes I have to ask a student to repeat something due to my inability to understand him. This past week, I had a seventh grader who spoke no English, despite having been in the school for years. We have come to expect it, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.

Nowadays, for better or for worse, our society is constructed in a way that to be financially ‘successful,’ one must be able to speak a reputable English. Being able to converse only in a crude form of the language will get a person only so far. This may be unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is.

Classically, new immigrants have surmounted this problem within a couple of generations. The immigrant parents would know absolutely no English, but the children would be forced to learn it in school, since that’s all they would hear and be expected to use. Eventually, after one generation, nearly everyone from that minority group would speak perfectly fine English, indistinguishable from any other American’s.

Jews from Europe weren’t given government documents in Yiddish, nor were there German teachers to teach the children of German immigrants. No immigrant group was favored. All were expected to learn English within a couple of generations, and thereby assimilate into American society well enough to slowly ascend the rungs of the economic ladder. Moreover, once this occurred, the group’s minority status became less and less significant. This is currently happening with Asian and Indian immigrants, both of whom have attained incredible success without much governmental accommodation to their respective languages. (For example, when I took a physics course at another university over a summer, none of the second-generation Asian or Indian students had any discernible accent whatsoever.)

But in the name of “multiculturalism,” the government has made it extremely easy to navigate society using only Spanish. The result: the perpetuation of an “under-class” in which immigrant families lack economic mobility largely due to a cultural and linguistic disconnect. Instead, the children of these immigrants identify less with America than with their parents’ homeland. Without the tool of language, there is little hope that they will be able to truly emerge from their poorer communities and economically flourish. Only 40 percent of all children today born into the lowest income quintile ever rise above it. Despite affirmative action, the percentage of Latinos who go on to college continues to lag behind other minorities. Unfortunately, when I asked my tutoring kids what they want to do when they grow up, most just wanted to stay in the area and work menial jobs.

Enabling multiple generations to do this has also fostered a society where everyone else must learn Spanish to accommodate this large group. While I am not against being bilingual, there are many societal challenges that arise when multiple generations of immigrants continue to lack basic familiarity with English. The dental clinic I volunteered in has to pay for a full-time Spanish translator because so many of its patients cannot understand any English. Of course, immigrants themselves cannot be expected to quickly pick up a language, especially those who come here at older ages. However, when children and grandchildren face the same tall obstacles their parents and grandparents did, we know something is wrong with our system.

Many of these ideas we are all aware of but are too afraid to talk about, due to political correctness and the like. But it is precisely because I care about each and every immigrant that I want to see them all become wildly successful Americans. On the surface, the government ceasing to offer anything in Spanish may sound draconian and intolerant. However, when one truly examines the impact of these policies, it is not surprising that Spanish in the governmental sphere has only kept the Latino community isolated and economically disadvantaged. Reverting back to an English-only government (maybe even declaring it the official language) will have an initial sting, but will ultimately do wonders for the Latino population in the coming decades.  Economic mobility in this country depends largely on acquired skills of language and communication, and pressing the Latino community to embrace English will unlock opportunities seldom realized hitherto.