ENGLISH ONLY COURT CASES INVOLVING THE U.S. WORKPLACE: THE MYTHS OF LANGUAGE USE AND THE HOMOGENIZATION OF BILINGUAL WORKERS’ IDENTITIES Kari Gibson
University of Hawai‘i
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects against discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, sex, religion and national origin. However when the judicial system has examined English Only workplace policies in light of Title VII, it has generally determined that such policies are not discriminatory if an employee is able to speak English. Although plaintiffs have argued that language is inextricably linked to national origin and cultural identity, the courts have stated that the use of a language other than English is detrimental to the morale of monolingual English speakers and a single language is necessary to ensure workplace harmony and proper management. This paper examines the court cases where English Only workplace policies have been challenged, and identifies the prevalent myths and ideologies held by businesses and the courts about language use, identity, and bilingual speakers. Through the process of homogeneism, linguistic diversity is rejected as monolingual English speakers are able to create and enforce rules that favor themselves as they construct the identity of “American” in their own image.
Language is a central feature of human identity. When we hear someone speak, we immediately make guesses about gender, education level, age, profession, and place of origin. Beyond this individual matter, a language is a powerful symbol of national and ethnic identity. (Spolsky, 1999, p. 181)
Language—both code and content—is a complicated dance between internal and external interpretations of our identity. Within each community of practice, defined by Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (1999, p. 185) as groups “whose joint engagement in some activity of enterprise is sufficiently intensive to give rise over time to a repertoire of shared practices,” certain linguistic (among other) practices are understood by the members to be more appropriate than others. While monolingual speakers are restricted to altering the content and register of their speech, bilingual speakers are able to alter the code, as well as content and register, of their language dependent upon the situation. Speakers who embrace the identity of a particular community will engage in positive identity practices, while those who reject the identity will use negative identity practices to distance themselves from it (Bucholtz, 1999). However, this framework only takes into account the intentions of the speaker, and neglects the role of the hearer. As Spolsky implies above, language is not only a means for us to present our own notion of “who we are,” but it is also a way for others to project onto us their own suppositions of the way “we must be.” Conflict arises when the hearer has a different understanding of the speaker’s identity than the one the speaker desires. The tension is further compounded when the hearer is in a position of power and can not only misinterpret the desires of the speaker, but can actively thwart this expression, forcing the speaker into an entirely different, perhaps unwanted, identity. This plays out daily in the workplaces of America, where English Only policies are enforced to maintain the powerful hearers’ view that good workers speak English among themselves and refrain from other, inappropriate, languages. The use of language to construct identity has been explored in education (Adger, 1998; Bucholtz, 1999; Fordham, 1998; Toohey, 2000), specifically among bilingual Spanish-English speaking students (Garcia, 2001; Zavala, 2000) and in bilingual Spanish-English society as a whole (Johnson, 2000; Morales, 2002; Stepick & Stepick, 2002; Valdés, 2000; Zentella, 2002), but little research has focused on bilinguals in the workplace (Goldstein, 1997; Martinovic-Zic, 1998). Court cases provide us the most revealing...
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