A “Bilingual” Approach to Language Rights

A “Bilingual” Approach to Language Rights

This Article was born out of a question posed to me by my eight-year-old son, Leo, who has been raised as a bilingual speaker of Spanish and English. Leo’s question arose in response to a proposal to eliminate the brief weekly Spanish lesson provided to the children at his public elementary school in Austin, Texas. In an indignant tone, Leo asked, “Why don’t they want us to learn Spanish when we have Mexico so nearby, and everybody there speaks Spanish?”

I was not a stranger to language rights issues when Leo posed the question. During previous years in Washington, D.C., I was deeply involved with a coalition of advocates that achieved adoption of a Language Access Act requiring D.C. government agencies to provide interpretation and translation services to non-English speakers who could not otherwise access their services or programs.2 I also represented individuals who suffered discrimination based on language, such as a Salvadoran man who successfully sued a Sheraton Hotel restaurant in the D.C. area after he was laid off and denied rehire because of his lack of English fluency, even though he had worked without difficulty as a dishwasher in the restaurant for fifteen years.

However, Leo’s question revealed a new dimension in language rights that I had not previously considered in any depth. Most of my work — in fact, most language rights work in the United States — has revolved around the extent to which individuals not fluent in English should be protected and assisted as they seek to ensure treatment on par with English speakers. Leo’s concern was focused in a different direction. He did not understand why a more positive cultural value was not ascribed to a language other than English despite the obvious influence of Spanish in Texas and the importance of cross-cultural communications with Spanish speakers in Texas and across the border.

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