October 16, 2003

Language Rights Lose in Nebraska

The AP reported this week (e.g. in the New York Times, 10/15/03) that Sarpy County, Neb., Judge Ronald E. Reagan ordered a father to speak to his 5-year-old daughter in English or else lose his visitation rights. What's next? Will divorced parents be required to speak in a particular dialect (say, Standard English) as a condition of visitation with their children, for fear that the children might otherwise say (gasp) "ain't" occasionally?

In the opinion of this judge, and of a great many other Americans too, First Amendment rights don't extend to use of a language other than English -- in spite of the fact that the United States, perhaps uniquely among the world's nations, in fact has no official language. Federal courts have struck down some of the more extreme "English Only" laws passed by state legislatures as being unconstitutional; possibly this Nebraska judge's ruling will meet the same fate.
But aside from constitutional issues, the judge's notion of language learning is notable (if not unusual) in its ignorance of children's capacities: a five-year-old child exposed in daily life to two languages -- ANY two languages -- will learn both languages with equal facility and without significant delays in acquisition of either language. So the judge's ruling is not only cruel; it is pointless. The child's welfare will be unaffected, except of course that she will miss a valuable opportunity to exercise her mind and enhance her humanity by learning a second language.

Posted by Sally Thomason at October 16, 2003 08:02 AM