Speak English 24-7? That's not U.S. history
Orlandon Sentinel
March 2, 2005
Myriam Márquez

We need to have many more conversations -- about language and its role in America's history. Notice I didn't refer to English, because the United States has long had a love-hate relationship with Americans speaking anything but English.

Except, of course, African slaves who were stripped of their languages and their dignity from the start.

Whenever I write about the reactionary English-only movement, I get the predictable calls and e-mails that proclaim: "If you want to speak Spanish in the stores, in the schools, on the job, then go back to your country."

Last week I wrote about the Orange County school district's audit of several schools teaching English to students learning the language for the first time. The audit found the same old problems: a lack of books and bilingual aides.

Judging from the reaction of most readers who contacted me, the solution rests on Hispanics and other newcomers who should speak English 24-7. That's how their ancestors did it, readers said. Hispanics, as one reader put it, "feel you deserve special treatment. The Germans, French, Polish and other ethnic groups have come to this country and learned the language of this country without all the special attention demanded by Hispanics."

Here we go again. Many Americans don't know this nation's history. So I dusted off historian Roger Daniels' Coming to America, one of many books I keep to remind me that we Hispanics aren't too special, after all.

First, don't try to compare today's education system with what existed 100 years ago. If anything, our schools today should teach foreign languages earlier because it will help us remain competitive in a global economy.

A century ago, farms and factories didn't need people to speak English or read in any language. Most Americans were lucky to finish elementary school. Heading into World War I, for instance, barely 1 percent of Italian-Americans attended high school.

Pennsylvania, where Germans made up one-third of residents, had ballots printed in German for decades. In the 1880s, there were about 800 German newspapers -- four of every five foreign-language papers in America at that time.

In 1890, Swedish American journalist Isador Kjellberg wrote, "The liveliest section of the busy Chicago Avenue shows, its entire length, a large mass of exclusively Swedish signs. . . . And wherever one goes one hears Swedish sounds . . . If one's thoughts are somewhat occupied, one can believe one has been quickly transported back to Sweden."

By 1921, Polish-American-run Catholic schools taught 200,000-plus students in -- brace yourself -- Polish.

Norwegians, who migrated here mostly after the Civil War, established some 800 different publications in their native tongue. You think most of those parents were speaking English at home to their children?

So here we are today. You'll hear hotel housekeepers on I-Drive talk in Haitian Creole, or perhaps Croatian, to one another. Manicurists will be chatting in Vietnamese while serving their English-only customers. Businesspeople at lunch might be chatting in Portuguese. Parents out shopping may scold a misbehaving child in Spanish or some other language to get the child's attention.

Don't fret. Central Florida is simply replaying the nation's history. English will survive. It always has.