Spanish Abuse

Dennis Baron

In June, 1995, an Amarillo, Texas, district court judge, ruling in a custody suit, accused Martha Laureano of child abuse for speaking Spanish to her five-year-old daughter. Judge Samuel C. Kiser ordered the mother to speak only English to the girl, who is entering kindergarten this Fall. He warned that English was necessary for her daughter to “do good in school.” Even worse, the judge added, without English the girl would be condemned to a life as a maid.

When the story broke at the end of August, there was a national outcry against this overreaching and misdirected decision. Judge Kiser, sensing that some fence-mending might be appropriate, apologized to maids. But he held resolutely to his English-only order.

The judge's mastery of English grammar is not the issue here. Nor are the obvious free-speech concerns of the case or that fact that the judge's equation of Spanish with child abuse draws attention away from the serious forms of abuse that do warrant legal intervention. Instead I want to focus on Judge Kiser's practice of a very traditional American form of language abuse.

For many years, young speakers of Spanish, Navajo, Chinese, and other minority languages in this country were beaten, humiliated, or given detentions if they used their first language in classrooms or on the schoolyard. Such punishments did not accelerate the students' adoption of English. As the average student chafing under a language requirement will attest, you can't make someone speak a “foreign” language. Physical force and corporal punishment do even less to secure linguistic compliance.

Nor can you effectively stop someone from speaking a language. After the United States entered World War I, anti-German language laws swept the nation. The governor of Iowa issued a proclamation forbidding the use of any foreign language in public: on trains, on the streets, at meetings, in religious services, even on the telephone, then a more public instrument than it is now. During the same wave of xenophobia, a teacher in a Lutheran private school was fined twenty-five dollars for having his students sing German hymns during the school day, in violation of a Nebraska law forbidding foreign-language instruction. This case led to the U. S. Supreme Court decision, Meyer v. Nebraska, overturning a number of state laws that blocked the teaching of foreign languages.

From time to time legislators concerned that not enough English was being spoken in the land have proposed making English the official language of the United States. In 1923 the State of Illinois made "American" its official language (in 1969 the law was quietly amended to make English the official tongue). The state language was symbolic, like the state bird or flower. The Illinois official language law, like Judge Kiser's decree, caused no one to speak English or abandon another language.

Nonetheless, with time non-English speakers in this country do switch to English. Social pressure accomplishes what punishment, sanctions, laws and required courses do not: the children of minority-language speakers have typically become bilingual, and in turn their children tend to speak only English. Some pro-English advocates claim that while this may have been true earlier, today's minority-language users are different. Maybe so. But there are also some indications that the familiar three-generation pattern of shifting to English is being abridged. Today many of the children of immigrants are becoming English-only speakers, skipping the bilingual state altogether. In the Amarillo case, Martha Laureano spoke Spanish to her daughter in the hope that she would become bilingual. She knew it was inevitable that the child would acquire English; she only hoped the girl would retain some of her Spanish.

American minority-language communities have learned over the past two centuries that despite their best efforts to preserve their culture, their children will abandon the parents' language in favor of English. There is a cruel irony here. American society urges immigrants to give up their native tongue and then bemoans the fact that a hopelessly monolingual America cannot compete effectively in the international marketplace. Surely there is a more efficient and more humane way to deal with the boundless linguistic creativity and flexibility of children than Judge Kiser's ruling would allow.

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.