Angie Harris: specifics of English Only are “unclear”

Angie Harris

Angie Harris

Proscribing the Nashville Metro government to English only in all of its official communications is a questionable initiative from a governance standpoint. The vague verbiage of the amendment gives the impression that it is intended to be applied as broadly as possible regarding government communication — the specifics of its application to policy are unclear.

The proposed amendment states that “the Metro Council may make specific exceptions to protect public health and safety.” What does this language imply, exactly? Does the word “public” mean “community” in a collective sense or rather on an individual case-by-case context? Without clear definitions, the amendment is open to abuse. If the opponents to the measure assert that providing services in different languages is expensive to the city now, voters should consider how much more it will cost for council members to make decisions based on each case including the funds that will be used in the imminent ensuing lawsuits.

Indeed, this initiative has potential to impair crucial emergency, legal and social services. Supplementary government paperwork translated for new immigrants has been available so they can conduct business as they learn English and assimilate into their new environment — it is not rational that Metro government takes punitive measures against new immigrant and refugee citizens by not providing translations for certain services. The city of Nashville should want to make this basic paperwork accessible in other languages so that its new residents are able to understand fully the egalities of such transactions when they arrive in Nashville. It seems reasonable that these key services should be available to all in order to protect the public.

The limitations of this policy between law enforcement and speakers of other languages are ambiguous. Would it be unlawful for a bilingual police officer to use Spanish when citing a speeding ticket while dealing with a person who communicates in Spanish more aptly than in English? Would this measure prevent victims of domestic abuse from understanding the law and his/her rights to take action? How does this amendment keep information from those who want to find out more about health services such as treatment for tuberculosis or diabetes? What are the implications for those non-native parents who utilize interpreters and translated documents for Individual Education Plan (IEP) parent-teacher meetings? These types of scenarios have not been defined in Crafton’s proposal, and the delineation between the public’s health and safety remain debatable.

Proponents of English-only policies must consider the devastating effects that could result from its application. On the most basic level, it would deny marginalized populations access to important information regarding safety, security, medical services and health care. Further, it would impede access to educational and training opportunities as well as legal, civil and community services. If enforced, the limitations of this legislation to progressive community development on a local level could result in far-reaching symbolic consequences to relations in the global community. Instead of expending resources to enforce cumbersome official language policies, efforts could be better applied toward understanding immigration trends and updating immigration policies to meet the needs of our immediate and inevitable global society.

Angie is an ESL/TESL educator in Nashville. She is native to Tennessee and has been teaching and developing programs for English learners and teachers, both locally and internationally, for nearly 20 years.

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