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When Should Language Be Restricted?

“When should language be restricted?”

In World Policy Journal’s spring 2012 issue, The Big Question investigates the use and abuse of language. We asked a diverse group of scholars, authors, bloggers, artists, and journalists to share with us their personal views on the boundaries of free speech. Dr. Roseann Dueñas González contributed one compelling piece, drawing from her extensive experience as a consultant to Congress. We would now like to give her response the space it deserves and publish it online as an extension of WPJ’s The Big Question.

By Roseann Dueñas González

Language is the most vital expression of identity and lies at the center of the human ego. As such, the restriction of language is injurious to the essential well-being of humanity. As a result, restrictive language policies disempower language minorities and ultimately limit their social mobility.

Great strides have been made in the extension of language access to linguistic minorities in the United States. I’ve spent my entire professional life ensuring that persons have the right to all of the benefits and privileges of the country through competent interpreter services, regardless of their national origin, primary language, race, or ethnicity. In 2000, President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 13166 reinvigorated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This progressive, but unfunded, order reminds United States agencies who receive federal funding that they have a legal obligation to provide competent language and interpreting services’. It was the policy answer that I had been waiting for many years.

The legal responsibility–in particular for courts, social service, education, and health care institutions–has been judiciously monitored and enforced by the Department of Justice since the beginning of the Obama Administration. This will advance the opportunity for language minorities who are not proficient in english to pursue the educational, economic, and social benefits. This recommitment to equitable treatment of language minorities will do much to advance their ability to defend themselves from criminal accusations, testify as a victim, protect their property and families in civil litigation, or to seek legal or governmental benefits. It also implies a reinforcement of civil rights that will prevent the myriad medical mistakes and harms that result from non-english speakers not able to communicate in a medical setting.   

Still despite these advances in the extension of language access to language minorities in the United States, restricting language use of undesirable immigrants and residents has expanded in other ways in U.S. society—again. Courts should not mandate a blanket “english proficiency” unless it is supported by rigorous empirical study of the actual language needed on the job. In Arizona, Proposition 203, “English for the Children,” is an example of a language policy intended to prevent rather than enable children speaking limited English from accessing and benefiting from education. Unfortunately, this is one of many initiatives implemented to obstruct the upward mobility of Spanish speakers in Arizona. While situations exist where proficiency in english is a bona fide requirement, the arbitrary nature of when it is required in the United States has prevented minorities across the country from getting jobs and supporting their families.

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Roseann Dueñas González, author of the book Language Ideologies: History, Theory, and Policy, is a professor of english and director of the National Center for Interpretation at the University of Arizona.

(Photo courtesy of C. G. P. Grey

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