Saturday, January 19, 2008

Silly bill

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."

7 comments:

Jay Stevens said...

Of course, such a bill has no chance of passing, so it's really just a sop to the nativist crowd before the elections. I'm not sure if Rehberg actually believes anything...

MTSentinel said...

I think you missed the point of the bill. The Bill doesn't force anyone to speak English - it allows employers to require English as a prerequisite for a job without fear of being sued for discrimination.

David said...

Mtsentinel,
Actually, I think I do get the point of the bill. The news release says it would prevent "frivolous" lawsuits, but actually it would prevent any lawsuits over language use in the workplace. That means employers could use the bill to discriminate if they wanted to.

MTSentinel said...

Maybe then the question is what discrimination is bad? Language is a skill - it can be learned. Should we allow an employer to discriminate based on skill-sets? I think yes. Otherwise, a swimming pool might be forced to hire a non-swimming lifeguard, or a library forced to hire an illiterate reference desk jockey.

In any case, when you say "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." why do I find myself wondering why you think that an elected representative has any business telling someone else how to think/act?

David said...

Discrimination is bad when it makes employment distinctions based on irrelevant skill sets. If I can't swim, then an employer is justified in not hiring me as a lifeguard. But he would not be justified to refuse to hire me as a shoe sales clerk.

I'm not sure I understand your second point. Elected representatives have no business telling anyone how to think. They have limited powers to tell people how to act (not robbing banks, not speeding, paying taxes, etc.). Where do we disagree here?

MTSentinel said...

I'm not sure I understand your second point. Elected representatives have no business telling anyone how to think. They have limited powers to tell people how to act (not robbing banks, not speeding, paying taxes, etc.). Where do we disagree here?

I guess I see anti-discrimination laws as elected officials telling folks how to act. If someone wishes to be racist or sexist - no matter how abhorent those ideas may be - I'm not sure I like the idea of Big Brother playing the role of thought police.

Comandante zero said...

Rehberg is a nice guy, when he's not being nasty, but this deal is just a matter of pandering.
I've heard this deal before in a speech before an ag group, where he said words to the effect that immigrants are OK but shouldn't try to "force their culture" upon us WASPs.
I grow up in a time when restaurants had back-room areas for Mexicans, and Indians might not be allowed in the place at all.
Apparently because of lack immigration laws, we have been "forced" to adopt a culture of Taco Bells, Cinco de Mayo drunkfests, Chinese food and other ills.
You can't legislate culture.
I thought the Republicans were, in Reagan's words, AGAINST government intrusion into people's lives.