No Space for “English Only Zones”


One cannot underestimate the importance of knowing English when living in America. Though everyone should feel accepted regardless of language, having a “common language” is beneficial for both a society and its immigrants. As an immigrant from Venezuela, I can attest to this—I quickly and eagerly learned English because I wanted to integrate and succeed. However, this doesn’t mean that I gave up my first language or that I consider Spanish inferior to English in any way. An immigrant’s first language and English simply play different roles, and each should be used in the appropriate setting.

The issue of foreign languages in everyday life was raised two weeks ago when the manager of a Jubilee grocery store in the Upper West Side decided to post “English Only Zone” signs around the store. According to Eyewitness News, the manager posted them as a “reminder to workers to only speak English on the job,” after a customer claimed that two employees were talking about her in Spanish and threatened to sue him. Businesswise, it was a risky decision; while attempting to please one disgruntled customer, the manager risked offending many others. To a customer that walks into the store, there is no indication that the signs are aimed specifically at the employees, and he or she might find it distasteful or even personally offensive. As one would expect, these signs didn’t stay up very long due to the controversy they sparked.

Maybe the customer was overly sensitive or maybe the employees truly were rude. Either way, language was not the issue—customer service was. Many people questioned whether it’s legal to post such signs in a business, but, legal or not, “English Only Zone” signs are an inappropriate way to deal with an issue of poor customer service. The two employees were not providing the kind of service that is expected of them because they made a customer feel uncomfortable. The situation is similar to whispering between coworkers when a customer walks up to the cash register. Yet, as far as I know, there are no “Whisper Free Zone” signs hanging up anywhere because it’s the manager’s job to make sure his employees are providing a good service. In a well-managed grocery store, there is no need for such signs.

The manager’s actions set off further debate online. A quick read-through of the comments section of the Eyewitness News article reveals a common thread among comments—many suggest that signs like these are justified because today’s immigrants need to learn the language just like everyone else’s ancestors did. This argument is weak for the simple reason that if you assume that a person doesn’t understand English, the signs are useless because he or she won’t be able to read them. But more importantly, the comments prove that there is a present-day misconception that learning a new language equates to giving up another. Chances are, immigrants who learned English upon arriving to America still speak their native language to their family and others from their homeland. Assuming that someone doesn’t know English at all because they are speaking a different language is ridiculous.

A prompt removal of the signs seemed to have solved the situation at the grocery store, but the question of how to deal with foreign languages at the workplace remains unanswered. The public’s reaction to the manager’s signs reveals the prejudice that exists today against immigrants, even in the tolerant and open-minded New York City. Yet, being multilingual is an invaluable asset that should be embraced rather than concealed. No one should feel ashamed of speaking a foreign language because of the possible negative connotations tied to being an immigrant. Whether a source of debate or of pride, New York’s linguistic diversity is part of its history and character, and it leaves no space for “English Only Zones.”