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Prof. Maceri's special column
No English, No Service?
Special Contribution
By Domenico Maceri
A group of Hispanics in the Unites States

"For Service, Speak English" is a discriminatory sign, according to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.

The sign appeared at the Pleasure Inn, a tavern in Mason, about 20 miles northeast of Cincinnati, Ohio. Tom Ullum placed the sign at his tavern and claims it was meant to be tongue in cheek.

Groups of Hispanics and whites complained about the sign, which they found offensive.

One would think business owners could put up whatever language signs they wish. Yet, there are laws which limit that freedom.

In Ohio it is unlawful for a business owner of a public accommodations place to deny the enjoyment of the premises to anyone because of race, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, or ancestry.

In today's American business it's a big advantage to use multiple languages to reach more customers and ultimately increase profits.

It's unusual for a merchant to advertise that services will be provided only to those who speak a certain language.

The rising Latino population causes concerns to many Americans and sometimes those negative feelings emerge in business through language.

In San Francisco, a hotel manager recently asked employees to speak only English at work. After it was reported to authorities, the hotel management took it back and stressed that the company has a long history of supporting a multilingual and diverse working force.

A similar situation arose at Cleveland Clinic, located in Florida. Apparently employees of the company received an e-mail stating that speaking languages other than English is allowed only "with those patients or vendors who are not English speaking."

The clinic's administrators denied allegations that they are forcing their employees to speak English and only English and that it is against their policy to "restrict the use of any language in the workplace."

Insisting on the exclusive use of English is based on the premise that the United States is considered an English-speaking country.

To a large extent that is true, but the reality is that many languages have been part of America's linguistic landscape.

Even today, about 300 languages are used to various degrees in the United States. Some of these are Native American languages, which have been in the country before it ever was a "country" and long before English was introduced in North America. Sadly, many of these Native American languages are disappearing.

In addition to Native American languages, immigrants from all over the world have brought languages to the United States. Soon after the American Revolution discussions about making German the language of government took place because of the anti-English and anti-British sentiments of the time.

But German and many other languages brought in by immigrants lost their importance as immigration from certain countries waned and English solidified its position as the dominant language.

English is clearly the essential language to be successful in the United States, yet some Americans feel that "their" language is under attack. Some fear that the rising popularity of Spanish is leading the country to bilingualism, perceived in a negative light. The fear is that Canada's language "problems" could also "infect" the United States.

This fear of other languages is evident in the declaration of English as the official language, which has occurred in twenty-seven states.

Declaring English the official language has had no practical effect on lowering immigration nor has it made immigrants learn English faster. The United States is still a multilingual country with a dominant English language. Even the rising importance of the Spanish language is no threat to the hegemony of English.

Given the importance of immigration, it's strange that many Americans reject bilingualism, viewing the presence of more than one language as a danger rather than an asset. The message seems to be that only monolingualism will assure peace and prosperity.

That is not the case, as one can easily see from Northern Ireland.

Multilingualism, instead, can provide peace and prosperity as one can see from Switzerland. Could Americans learn from the Swiss?

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Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.






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