Opinion | English as Michigan’s official language? How Lansing spends its time.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” –Nelson Mandela

The first time I felt pressured to learn English, I was four years old and enrolled in a preschool program in Chicago. Having only been exposed to Spanish in my household, I was a complete stranger to the language my peers spoke.

Victoria Crouse is a policy fellow for the Michigan League for Public Policy

My teacher, a first-generation immigrant, understood my tendency to isolate myself in class, and often invited my older sister to help translate for me. But I knew I couldn’t avoid this new language forever. One day, when I realized I badly needed to use the bathroom, I forgot the words to ask permission in English and burst into tears. In that moment I felt overwhelmed and afraid. Thankfully, my teacher guessed correctly what it was that I needed and walked me to the bathroom.

I’ll never forget those first days I was exposed to the English language. If it hadn’t been for the kindness of teachers and accommodations made by those around me, I would have had a much harder time adjusting to a world in a strange tongue.

The fear I felt at the time was the same fear my grandmother felt when she first arrived to the United States at the age of 70. At that age, it was much harder for her to learn a new language, and she often preferred to stay at home so that she could avoid getting stuck at grocery stores or train stations, unable to find what she needed or her way home. These days, she still struggles with the language, but she’s worked hard to remember basic words in case of emergencies.

It’s no secret that learning English is essential when you live in the United States. It would behoove policymakers to remember that the principle of remaining open to all languages and embracing those who haven’t mastered the dominant language is equally essential in this country.

In Michigan, 78.8 percent of immigrants speak a language other than English, while 40.3  percent speak English less than “very well.” That’s over 250,000 Michiganders struggling to navigate English-dominated communities.

With so many still having a hard time navigating their communities, you can imagine my frustration when I heard about the passage of House Bill 4053, a bill that would make English Michigan’s official language.

The bill passed the House in February, and was passed out of the Judiciary Committee of the Senate March 21; the bill now awaits a vote in the full Senate.

The bill would (rather redundantly) make English the language used for public records, public meetings and official acts of state. 

Here is what the bill will not do: prohibit the teaching of foreign languages in schools; apply to English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction in schools; prohibit the use of other languages in the promotion of international commerce, tourism, sporting events or cultural events; or prohibit the use of terms of art or phrases from languages other than English.

Official documents and forms would be printed in English, as they are now, but agencies and local units of government would continue to have the option of making official documents available in languages other than English for various reasons.

The bill would also not apply if it is ever in conflict with federal law, or if public health, safety or justice requires the use of languages other than English. According to analysis by the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, the bill cannot, for example, violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which maintains meaningful access to federally funded public services and programs for individuals with limited English proficiency.

Given the bill’s limited scope, it’s unclear what real purpose the bill would serve other than a symbolic rejection of non-English speaking Michiganders and those with limited proficiency.

Instead of wasting everyone’s time with unnecessary and polarizing anti-immigrant bills, policymakers should consider ways our state can expand access to ESL services for adults who need them, and ensure that state agencies are meeting federal standards in language access in all services and programs. On March 21, the Senate Judiciary Committee took another unfortunate step forward on this bill, reporting it out to the full Senate for consideration.

Let’s make sure our state elected officials know that making English the official language will not move us forward toward progress. Let’s keep working hard to make Michigan a welcoming state for all. ¡Si se puede! (It can be done!)

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Tue, 04/17/2018 - 7:12am

"Given the bill’s limited scope, it’s unclear what real purpose the bill would serve other than a symbolic rejection of non-English speaking Michiganders and those with limited proficiency."

That is exactly what it is for, just an appeal to the xenophobia of certain Michigan residents to get them to vote for someone behind this symbolic waste of time legislation.

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 9:01am

Very balanced article.
It is good to see the hypocrisy of Lansing called out again and again. Wasting taxpayer money on distractions is nothing new in Lansing, while the big problems of this state go unsolved.

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 9:36am

Both commenters are right. It's about promoting an "attitude" and has nothing to do with helping the state. It's shameful that we have legislators who think this is a worthwhile way to spend their time. They're not capable of creating useful legislation. They simply look for ways to continue the divisions because that's the how politicians behave today.

Rogelio Landin
Tue, 04/17/2018 - 10:51am

At the risk of restating the obvious; perhaps another way of phrasing what the Bill is supposed to accomplish would be: "No Language Other Than English, Shall be the Official Language of the State"

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 11:00am

We need to declare Spanish (or another language, I'm not biased) the official language of Michigan, so as not to mentally stress those vulnerable native speakers.

However, I agree there are more important things to be done in Lansing.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 04/17/2018 - 1:55pm

"Given the bill’s limited scope, it’s unclear what real purpose the bill would serve other than a symbolic rejection of non-English speaking Michiganders and those with limited proficiency."

Ms. Crouse is obviously new to Michigan Politics.

Screwing around and wasting time is THE thing our non-representing "representatives" up in Lansing do best.

Why else would Michigan Roads look like the Air Force used them for target practice, school test scores continue to crater (after state government felt that it needed to interject itself into the equation), taxes on productive Michigan Residents continue to rise and the state debt rocketing up into the stratosphere?

Yet they can continue to find the time to fast track things like the naming of a stretch of highway, requiring a license to shampoo someone hair and other superfluous bills like this.

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 2:56pm

Yet another bill in our legislature that is nothing more than a 'dog whistle' and red meat to the worst in our population. This legislature hasn't fixed one thing about the true issues in our great state and just keeps trying to divide us ('divide and conquer').

Get the vote and clean house (and senate) and get some adults who care about all of our citizens!

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 3:31pm

Have you ever traveled to a central or south American country? I went to a government building in Guatemala to see the amateur radio application form for non-residents. The form is all in Spanish. I had to take it to an American translator to pay to have it translated into English. That is what it means to have English as the official language of the state of Michigan. All documents are only available in English. The foreign speaker has to pay for a translation.

Tue, 04/17/2018 - 4:15pm

"Official documents and forms would be printed in English, as they are now, but agencies and local units of government would continue to have the option of making official documents available in languages other than English for various reasons."
I just took this to mean that the State Of Michigan would no longer provide printed matter in languages other than English and would only use English in public meetings, records, and official acts of state.

David W. Blomstrom
Fri, 04/20/2018 - 9:02pm

I'm working on a state symbols reference (Geobop's State Symbols) and would like to add my two cents.

The most redundant state symbols by far are the honeybee, milk, square dance and English. States across the nation call milk their official beverage, the square dance their official dance, etc. Some states are represented by all four.

Wisconsin, of course, is the ultimate dairy state. (Actually, California's dairy industry is bigger.) And Utah's claim to the honeybee is unsurpassed.

Nothing against the square dance, but its adoption appears to be part of some kind of plot to make the square dance the national dance. Some alleged an even darker conspiracy behind the square dance craze, but I won't go into that here.

To get to the point, Michigan is one of just five states that have adopted NONE of these frivolous four symbols.

My book (which should be finished by June 2018) will include the first ever state symbols report cards. States adopting the honeybee, milk, square dance or English (except for Wisconsin and Utah) get automatic demerits.

On another note, I've divided state symbols into three broad categories - symbols of state (e.g. flags, mottoes and state songs), ecosymbols (plants, animals, minerals and fossils) and political symbols. English is clearly a politicized symbol. It stinks.

If you have to adopt an official language, take a cue from Alaska and Hawaii, which designated native languages, or Maine, which adopted American Sign Language.

You can learn more about my book at www.kpowbooks.com.

P.S. I hope that campaign to designate the Liberator Michigan's official aircraft has expired. We really don't need any more military symbols. Have you checked out Tennessee's official sniper rifle?