English-only defeated in Nashville

By Michelle Chen Jan 23, 2009

An initiative to establish English as the official language in Nashville was defeated yesterday, bucking a nationwide conservative push for "official English" in response to perceptions about immigrant populations. The city’s "English first" initiative would have basically mandated that all government business be conducted in English–in sharp contrast to immigrant-rich cities like New York, where government agencies are supposed to offer multi-lingual documents and access to translation services. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean hailed the vote as proof of "Nashville’s identity as a welcoming and friendly city, and our ability to come together as a community." Of course, proponents of the referendum, led by City Councilman Eric Crafton, used similar rhetoric, arguing that "a community is more united, more efficient under one common language." Crafton even pointed to Latinos who supported the initiative as a means toward assimilation. So far, efforts to push English-only legislation on the federal level have failed. John Trasviña of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund testified before Congress in 2006:

"Official English and English-only policies are founded upon the myth that the primacy of the English language is somehow under threat. In fact, more than 92 percent of our country’s population speaks English, according to the last Census, confirming that the problem English-only laws are designed to address simply does not exist. Moreover, English-only laws are built upon, and help to perpetuate, a baseless stereotype of immigrants, and in particular of immigrants from Latin America: specifically, the false perception that Latino immigrants do not want to learn English.

"In reality, Latinos, both native-born and newly-arrived, embrace English and place tremendous importance and value upon attaining English-language fluency. By wide margins, Latinos believe that learning English is essential for participation and success in American society. A recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center found that an overwhelming majority of Latinos – 92 percent – believes that teaching English to the children of immigrants is very important, a percentage far higher than other respondents. "Indeed, Latino immigrants are learning English, and doing so as quickly as or more quickly than previous generations of immigrants. As is typical of immigrant populations in the United States, by the third generation most Latinos tend to speak only English. Latino immigrants, then, do not need official English or English-only legislation to coerce them into learning English; that desire and determination already runs deep in the Latino community. They do, however, require the means and the opportunity. English Language Learners are too often hampered in their efforts to achieve full proficiency."

While English uniformity is touted under the guise of "efficiency" and "unity," English-only advocates tend to ignore the systemic obstacles to attaining English proficiency. In a letter to the Obama administration, the Institute for Language and Education Policy outlined the barriers English-language-learners face in the education system, in part due to constraints imposed by No Child Left Behind:

"Neglect is evident at all levels: federal, state, and local. Far too little is being done to ensure that ELLs are provided an adequate share of school funding, appropriately trained teachers, valid assessments, and research-based programs to promote English acquisition and academic achievement. "Failure to address these needs has perpetuated a shameful, inequitable, two-tier system of public education. The Urban Institute (Cosentino de Cohen et al., 2005) reports that 70 percent of ELLs are now concentrated in majority-minority, under-resourced schools and in classrooms where teachers have considerably less experience and fewer credentials than those serving English-proficient students."

The tens of thousands of Nashville voters who struck down English First made a clear statement on Thursday: communities are never unified by elevating the voices of some while silencing others.