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Spanish in the workplace

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POSTED: January 19, 2008 5:02 a.m.
From small time to over the hill, the conservative punditocracy is worried, very worried, that Spanish is taking over. Pretty mad about it, too.
“I don’t know about you, but I do a slow burn when I get a recorded telephone message telling me to ‘Press 1 for English,’” writes Dot Ward of Madison, Miss., in her local newspaper’s reader blog.
And Reagan-era activist Phyllis Schlafly asks, “Are you tired of anonymous voices on the phone telling you to ‘Press 1 (or sometimes 2) for English’?”
But that’s not what this is all about, is it?
“The ability to speak and communicate in English is the litmus test of whether immigrants are assimilating into U.S. culture,” Schlafly continues. “(T)he Pew Hispanic Center just reported that only 52 percent of Hispanic naturalized citizens speak English well or pretty well. Pew also reported that 28 percent of Latino immigrants speak only Spanish on the job.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is acting to stop some of that Spanish speakin’ with his introduction last month of the “Protecting English in the Workplace Act of 2007.” A press release from his office explains that the bill “would clarify that it’s not against the law to prohibit foreign languages from being spoken while engaged in work.”
The legislation was prompted by a lawsuit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed against the Salvation Army, alleging discrimination for requiring two employees to speak English while sorting clothes.
Alexander (a sensible moderate Republican, once upon a time) and the right-wing blogosphere are framing it as a fight to preserve our supposedly vulnerable linguistic unity.
The problem stems from the false premise that immigrants are tearing apart the national fabric with their refusal to speak English.
That study by the Pew Hispanic Center, from which Schlafly cherry-picked statistics to support her view, actually undermines her view.
She failed to mention three-quarters of foreign-born Hispanic adults who arrived at age 10 or younger can carry on a conversation in English “very well.” She also did not say 91 percent of second-generation Hispanics speak English well, and 97 percent of the third generation.
So, yes, immigrants are passing Schlafly’s linguistic litmus test and assimilating into U.S. culture.
Then what’s the problem?
Supporters of Alexander’s bill pretend that unless it is passed, a torrent of EEOC lawsuits will force employers to hire people who don’t speak English — which is utter nonsense. There are already laws that acknowledge knowing English can be as a business necessity.
What Alexander’s bill does is enable employers to prohibit employees from uttering words in languages other than English, even in private conversations with no relation to workplace safety or the conduct of business.
When they hear Spanish, some people do a “slow burn,” some find it “annoying,” some are “tired” of it.
And others try to ban it.

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
 

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