An English teacher at Cliffside Park High School in New Jersey was the subject of controversy last week when she told students in her classroom to stop speaking Spanish with one another in class and speak in English instead.
A student in the math class she was substituting for filmed her saying that people in the United States “are not fighting for your right to speak Spanish. They are fighting for your right to speak American.” According to Fox 59, the comment enraged the class and three students walked out.
The student population of Cliffside Park, many of whom are Spanish-speaking, immediately urged the administration to take action.
One student mentioned how this teacher would go to students speaking Spanish in the hallways and tell them to stop.
As a result, the principal of Cliffside Park held an assembly for every grade and encouraged students to bring in flags that represent their cultures.
As a bilingual student who grew up speaking Russian and English equally, it is disheartening and frustrating when such comments are made by teachers and other authority figures.
I have been called out for speaking in Russian while going about my business in the United States and for speaking in English while visiting Russia.
I am comfortable with both languages and sometimes use them interchangeably without second thought.
The United States prides itself on being a country that accepts and promotes diversity. Although English is considered the unofficial language of the nation and is the one most commonly used, it takes just one short stroll down the streets of midtown Manhattan to hear more than five different languages or dialects used in conversation.
There is an argument to be made that it is disrespectful to use a language that not everyone understands when people are in a group setting.
It might feel like the only reason why people are using an unfamiliar language is because they want to purposefully exclude someone from a conversation.
However, sometimes this is a matter of habit and what language is easier to use in order to get one’s point across.
My middle school friends would often speak in Cantonese even if we were all spending time together. As much as I wished I understood everything they were saying, I quickly realized that they were not trying to single me out — it was just easier for them to convey their thoughts in their native tongue.
Additionally, politely asking someone to include others in a conversation and claiming that one does not have a right to speak in their native language are two starkly different statements.
The situation at Cliffside Park is part of a larger debate of whether English should be the official language of the United States. This would mean that all government and business affairs would be conducted in only one language and that people would be prompted to learn and use English regardless of their cultural background.
People who support the United States establishing an official language argue that it will be easier for immigrants to assimilate into the United States and that the government will save money by not having to print multilingual versions of documents or hire translators.
However, imposing one language on a nation with over 300 different languages and dialects represented hurts and ostracizes minority groups.
Even though most of the population can understand at least basic English, they are at a disadvantage if they cannot receive government documents and services in the language with which they are most comfortable.
Additionally, imposing a language on someone violates their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
While establishing English as the country’s official language does not ban people from using other languages, it discourages them from doing so.
Furthermore, foreign language skills are important in order to be competitive in the international market. With colleges and businesses putting more emphasis on becoming multilingual, having an official language of the United States is going in the wrong direction.
The United States is a melting pot of language and culture. People should foster this diversity and promote the learning and use of multiple languages.
Establishing an official U.S. language or making comments about how students should only speak in English hinders the growth of the nation and inhibits people from learning to accept one other.