In the category of dumb legislation falls this news release from Denny Rehberg, who is sponsoring a bill "allowing employers to require employees to speak English while engaged in work activities."
Says Rehberg: “The English language is one of the common denominators that unites our diverse nation. So, it’s only fitting U.S. employers should be able to require their employees to speak it."
I thought one of the common denominators that unites our diverse nation was our right to say any damn thing we pleased, whether or not it fits the prejudices of our elected representatives.
He adds, "Immigrants wanting to be a part of America’s workforce should be willing to engage in the basic act of learning English. This bill gives employers the ability to insist they do so.”
When I read statements like that one, I suspect that the speaker has absolutely no clue what he is talking about. When I worked at Bueroeinrichtungshaus Finkenzeller in Munich, Germany, I spoke German probably 95 percent of the time. My boss, a Spaniard, spoke slightly broken German (as did I), but his German was better than his English, and my German was better than my Spanish, so German was the nearest thing we had to a common language.
But there were occasions when it made sense on the job to speak in English. Mostly it was because a co-worker wanted to make me feel at home or to practice his own English, a request I was happy to oblige. Occasionally English helped -- or could have helped, if it had been available to all involved -- to get around an unfamiliar phrase or an arcane bit of vocabulary.
On other occasions, it just felt good to speak a little English. No matter how hard one works to learn another language, it never quite comes as naturally as the native tongue. I remember scouring the tiny English language section at the nearby branch library, hungry for a familiar voice. I read every Sherlock Holmes story ever written, just because I loved hearing the language in my head.
Obviously, immigrants should learn English. Obviously, English is the preferred language in most American workplaces. But employers should not use English to control or weed out workers who are still trying to learn. And the federal government should not give employers the cudgel that allows them to do that.
The real goal seems clear: Our congressmen don't want immigrants to feel at home or to be able to speak the language most likely to help them succeed. Congressmen want to look like tough guys. Instead, they look like bullies.
UPDATE: I didn't know when I wrote this that Roger Clawson was writing on the same issue (and on English only) for the Jan. 24 Outpost. I can't give the column away, but here's a quote: "English-Only laws are, at best, empty symbolism and, at worst, xenophobic, race-tinged proposals that imperil programs that can help non-English students and adults attain English proficiency."