Social media is adding another hurdle to the path to being English-speaking

Facebook has decided that it can afford to hire more people who speak English rather than a second language, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. This is not just a corporate problem, but a societal one. English is now at the top of Americans’ list of languages to use in online conversation, with 16 percent of Americans speaking it and another 18 percent using it “a lot.” That means that the company is, effectively, taking on the power of the rich to impose their English-first policies on a weaker community. In doing so, they are enabling a wedge between and amongst social classes — one that preserves different access to the internet at the expense of those whose livelihoods depend on high-speed connectivity.

The fact that most Americans can use Facebook is arguably a blessing in disguise. Who could be against freedom? As your Facebook friends may tell you, the way in which Facebook conducts its business is directly traceable to the internet’s democratization. By establishing reliable platforms for distribution of content and commerce, Facebook was able to open the doors to people who previously couldn’t get online, or couldn’t afford the internet. It helped create entire industries out of the murkier corners of the internet, like cryptocurrency. But it has also created a two-tiered internet, one that appears to favor those who share English as a language, and another that does not.

The photo below is from a Facebook Groups session with a community of men who speak no English. Both groups invited members to speak and debate the issues they encounter. The majority of the men on either side are firmly in the supporting camp of the immigrants’ call for a fair and effective “Gang of Eight” bill on immigration reform. Although several of the men spoke with English as a second language, many of them continue to face socioeconomic hurdles that make online discourse difficult for them.

Over half of the participating men are part of our native native speakers group, because their first language is English. It’s this group that will be put at an extraordinary disadvantage if Facebook chooses to spend money on employees who only speak English as a first language, or a second language.

Meanwhile, the community of American-born-to-illegal immigrants is second only to Spanish speakers among Facebook users. Millions of workers, from chefs and cleaning staff to chauffeurs and electricians, are employed using English as a second language to communicate, a barrier that Facebook would certainly like to break down. And yet, there are those who continue to face language barriers that are so bad that they not only can’t participate in Facebook, but that they may become victims of vandalism. The photo below, posted just over a year ago, depicts a feud between two Facebook groups. In both groups are men, clearly connected, but the men who attend the meetings are not able to speak English. The other community, a group with more members who speak English as a first language, consistently uses its platform to defend the illegal immigrants, their rights, and their parents, who do not speak English.

The challenges that face American-born to illegal immigrants are real. For many of them, English as a second language is a barrier to social and economic opportunity. Many employers, like hotel managers and cleaners, believe that English as a second language, and thus the ability to handle customers, is a prerequisite for the kind of job that is needed to survive. There are no easy answers to the question of how to accommodate both groups in a manner that is respectful of the rest of Americans’ use of the internet. But the question for Facebook, and companies like it, should be, how do we ensure that the Internet is for everyone? How can we make our platforms work so that everyone — native-born and immigrant alike — can benefit from them, and not feel that they are at a disadvantage?

Read the full story at The Wall Street Journal.

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