Linguistic Minority Rights: Picking a Side

Linguistic Minority Rights: Picking a Side

Juliana Biondo

Some say it can explain everything. Some say it lacks the ability to express deeper meaning. Others claim it is our very bond: language. According to the theories of sociologist Friedrich Schleiermacher, reaching an understanding happens through a reciprocal relationship between a sum and its parts; one cannot exist without the other. This means that no single text, exchange or even word can be understood without knowing its cultural context, the summative backdrop against which it was formed. As a result, the process of interpretation becomes extremely ambiguous and fluid, with every group of people having their own methods.[1]

So if language is fluctuating, how can we place a firm legal framework on top of it to secure its proper use? This question becomes especially pressing with regard to linguistic minority rights, such as the right of non-native speakers to choose their language of communication in a public sphere, in a work place or educational environment. The ability to communicate seamlessly is absolutely vital in the public sphere; yet, as of now, the United States is still waiting on a clearly stated and enforced policy on language rights.

Canada: United in Difference
Unclear notions about minorities’ language rights can create delicate social situations. Suppose a person walks into a coffee shop, only to realize that the individuals serving her are not native English-speakers. The workers do not notice the customer and are having a seemingly intense conversation in Spanish. Should the buyer attempt to interrupt them with the only Spanish word or phrase she may know, or should she use English? One may worry about talking too fast for fear of misunderstanding. Yet, it could also be rude to assume that the workers don’t know English. The ambiguity of the situation highlights the need for a framework that defines the status and linguistic rights of minorities. It is necessary to investigate legislators’ dealing with the ideas of exchange and mutual understanding.

When discussing what constitutes “understanding” another person, group, or culture, Canada is an apposite example to investigate. Canada is the first nation with a federally declared “adoption” of multiculturalism.[2] This means that all actions done by the state or federal government are driven by the ideology that one could, and should, take pride in their ancestry, keep their identity, and still be able to feel a national belonging to Canada.[3] Canada is united by its differences, and it is in the country’s legal fabric to preserve them. In 1969, Canada passed the Official Languages Act, which recognized French as a second official Canadian language. However, with the influx of new immigrants just a few years later, French and English as the only official languages no longer seemed adequate. By 1971, Canada produced a Multiculturalism Policy that made the country a place where anyone may have citizenship without the condition of assimilation, or a giving up of personal cultural traditions to fit into Canadian culture. Over the next 30 years, Canada would continue to create legislation that specifically targeted to remove any societal barriers based on disrespect for cultural differences.[4]

Canada is a melting pot. However, it is one that does not wish to meld together, and would rather exist as individual entities simply sharing the same space. Canada’s interpretation of “understanding” means having respect for, and giving space to, other cultures. The United States’ definition of a melting pot, on the other hand, walks a fine line between striving for cultural assimilation and maintaining the nation’s heterogeneous parts.

California and Arizona: Different Approaches
In California, the laws surrounding linguistic rights and English-only policies are guided not by an ideal of multiculturalism, but by the question: Is the policy in question “business necessary”?[5] In other words, does the existence of an English-only policy protect businesses from failure? The slippery part of this question is how to define “business necessary.” What may be deemed necessary in a construction company may not be considered necessary in a medical office. For example, if someone cannot communicate clearly in a doctor’s office, incorrect procedures may be carried out, or necessary operations ignored. In a doctor’s office, an English-only policy may be justified as a way of protecting people, while an English-only policy at a construction site could be seen as discriminatory.

Another question that arises is: Does the concept of “business necessary” hold any weight when compared to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? The Act prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee “with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment,” and from depriving “an individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect[ing] his status as an employee” because of the individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.[6] This presents two questions to answer; first, does language get classified under national origin and second, if it does (which would make English-only policies illegal), what happens if there is a miscommunication in a “business necessary” situation? California does not prohibit English-only policies, but it is clearly illegal to discriminate. California’s reliance on the business necessary principle creates a tension between economic concerns and civil rights.

In Arizona, it is up to the individual businesses to decide whether or not they want to adhere to English-only policies. In May of 2010, Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that states it is not required for a business to provide translation services to someone who walks into their office speaking a language other than English. One situation that contributed to the law’s creation was a happening at a doctor’s office. A mother, unable to speak English, came in asking her doctor for help. Her son, a minor who spoke relatively good English and was fluent in Spanish, acted as a translator for his mother. The doctor felt he could not trust the son to translate correctly because he could not be sure that the son properly understood what the doctor had to communicate. The doctor was concerned about a possible lawsuit for malpractice and hence refused to help the woman, unless she brought someone over the age of 18 to translate. This instance illustrates a similar tension between business and individual concerns: Because minority language rights were not clearly regulated, professional obligations to give medical help to an individual clashed with the doctor’s personal business concerns. Arizona shirked a clear stance on the issue by passing a law that leaves it to the individual businesses the discretion to decide on an English-only policy.

Picking a Side
It is necessary for the U.S. to adopt a clear position on linguistic rights of minorities. Just as Canada has created legislation founded in their desire for a consistent and true “adoption” of multiculturalism, the United States must make a similarly clear choice. Are we trying to permanently integrate and assimilate non-English-speaking groups into American society? If so, we need to learn how to accommodate them economically and socially. Or, are we trying simply to open our doors to them, but without catering to them? If that is the case, then we must be rigorous in our application of English-only policies. The problem lies in the ambiguity of the situation—the U.S. needs to pick a side.

Juliana Biondo is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The Life of Schleiermacher as unfolded in his Autobiography and Letters, trans. Frederica Rowan, (London, 1860), Vol. 1, pp. 7, 26.
  2. “Canada’s Multicultural Policies.” Alberta Online Encyclopedia. The Heritage Foundation, n.d. 10 Aug 2011. (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
  3. “Multiculturalism.” Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Canadian Government, 17 May 2011. (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
  4. “Justice Laws Website.” Department of Justice. Canadian Government, 11 Aug 2011. (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
  5. Burns, Michael. “English Only Rules for the California Employer.” Horan, Lloyd, Karachale, Dyer, Schwartz, Law & Cook, Incorporated. N.p., 2009. Web. (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
  6. United States. Teaching with Documents: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Washington, D.C.: (accessed Sep 15, 2011)

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