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Goeun Park: Assimilation is flawed, pretty awful argument

Tutoring in an after-school creative writing program for middle school students was possibly the most meaningful thing I did all semester.

Earlier this week, we held an end of the year party to celebrate our mentee’s achievements with their friends and family. The program directors first gave the speech in English and a translator then delivered message in Spanish.

I remember thinking such gesture was really considerate, and also rather uncommon.

In my linguistics class, we briefly talked about linguistic biases. Some obvious ones include biases against southern drawls, valley girl talk and foreign accents. Based on my college friends’ ceaseless teasing over my preference for ‘pop’ rather than ‘soda’ and my pronunciation of ‘bag,’ the infamous Minnesota accent is also a linguistic bias.

By studying language at a scientific level, I learned to strip away the stigma associated with certain sounds. Lately, I noticed how political and detrimental these biases could be outside of the classroom.

In the past few decades, there have been pushes to make English the official language of the United States. In 2002, No Child Left Behind slashed bilingual education. Every now and then, I hear people complaining about having to listen to press two for Spanish in automated calls.

I won’t speak on anyone else’s behalf, but here are my two cents. The entire “Make English the Official Language Because This is ‘Murica and Immigrants Will Need to Assimilate Because, Once Again, This is ‘Murica Not Mexico” argument is flawed and frankly, a little awful. (By a little, I mean a lot awful.)

First, the moral justification against multilingualism is misconstrued. Multilingualism does not cause illiteracy or socioeconomic inequality or cultural segregation — that’s due to institutionalized poverty. That’s caused by racism and lack of resources, not Spanish.

Second, the demand for assimilation is rather inconsiderate. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of that word. What does it even mean? If by assimilation they mean getting used to racist stereotypes and lack of media representation of people with my skin color, then yes, I suppose I have assimilated. But clearly, that’s not enough.

Earlier this semester, I lamented to a friend about my desire to “fit in.” He looked at me for a good second before laughing. Not mean, but a pitying sort of laugh, if you will. He told me that I could live the rest of my life here and I still wouldn’t belong, and I was too stung by how close his comment hit home to take offense.

As an Asian immigrant, there’s a limit to my assimilation. My physical appearance, my family traditions, my name — those things I cannot replace. Will not replace. I’ve come to terms that when my English slips, I should be prepared to take corrections (sometimes condescending, sometimes merely apologetic) with gratitude.

I’ve accepted the fact that society will always cue me as the Nerdy Asian Sidekick and never the All American Girl Next Door. I’ve lived in this country long enough to be comfortable with this.

For a price, I have assimilated to who I am today. I’m sure I cost a few hundred dollars of taxpayer money for my years in ESL — and according to the news lately, spending taxpayer money is practically a sin — but hey, look how well I turned out! I’ve assimilated! Kind of.

But proposed laws like making English the official language aren’t for people like me. It’s for the working class immigrants, for the parents of the children I tutor, for my own parents. It’s meant to target some of the most politically vulnerable members of our community.

I can read and speak English just fine but even I have trouble interpreting official documents. To make laws expecting immigrants to dissect legal text — including immigration, visa and tax papers — in a foreign language is to expect failure.

Words, especially words in a legal context, have the power to include or exclude others, and attitudes behind English-only measures are inherently privileged and exclusive. We need to reassess our attitudes on language assimilation and multilingualism.

Language is a reflection of a people’s culture and identity, and that is something that should not be so easily taken away.

So, I know I spent this entire column bashing English-only policies, but I’d like to finish off by saying that explaining grammar to a pair of middle schoolers every week was the best thing I’ve done in the past four months.

These kids are going to be great writers, and they will use their stories to reach out and connect to their community — exactly what language is supposed to do.

Goeun Park graduated from Detroit Lakes High School and attends college in California.