Lingo Jingo

Since Slovakia became an independent state a few years ago, the
Slovak majority has been imposing increasingly stringent language
restrictions on the ethnic Hungarian minority, whom they suspect
of irredentist leanings. Hungarian place-names must be changed
to accord with Slovak spellings, all official business must be
transacted in Slovak even in districts that are almost entirely
Hungarian-speaking, and so forth. It's a familiar enough pattern
in that part of the world, where antique ethnic antagonisms are
routinely fought out on the field of language, except that in
this case, the Slovakians have insisted that their policies are
in fact thoroughly modern—even American. By way of demonstrating
this, the Slovak State Language Law of 1995 cites the example
of American official-English bills, and the drafters of the law
made a point of entertaining a delegation from the U.S. English
organization. In American eyes, though, the similarities might
lead to another, more disquieting conclusion: What if it's we
who are becoming more like them?

For most of our history, language has not been a major theme in
American political life. The chief reason for that, to be sure,
is that God in his wisdom has given us a single dominant language,
with few real dialects or patois of the sort that European nations
have had to deal with in the course of their nation building.
(One notable exception is the post-Creole variety spoken by many
African Americans.) It's true that America has always had substantial
communities of speakers of non-English languages: indigenous peoples;
groups absorbed in the course of colonial expansion, like the
Francophones of Louisiana and the Hispanics of the Southwest;
and the great flows of immigrants from 1880 to 1920 and during
the past 30 years. And since the eighteenth century there have
been recurrent efforts to discourage or suppress the use of other
languages by various minorities, particularly at the time of the
nativist movement of the turn of the century. But the focus on
language has always been opportunistic, a convenient way of underscoring
the difference between us and them; the issue has always subsided
as minorities have become anglicized, leaving little symbolic
residue in its wake. Unlike the Slovakians, the Italians, the
Germans, or those paragons of official orality, the French, we
have not until now made how we speak an essential element of what
we are.

Given the minor role that language has played in our historical
self-conception, it isn't surprising that the current English-only
movement began in the political margins, the brainchild of slightly
flaky figures like Senator S.I. Hayakawa and John Tanton, a Michigan
ophthalmologist who co-founded the U.S. English organization as
an outgrowth of his involvement in zero population growth and
immigration restriction. (The term "English-only" was
originally introduced by supporters of a 1984 California initiative
opposing bilingual ballots, a stalking horse for other official-language
measures. Leaders of the movement have since rejected the label,
pointing out that they have no objection to the use of foreign
languages in the home. But the phrase is a fair characterization
of the goals of the movement so far as public life is concerned.)

Until recently, English-only was not a high priority for the establishment
right. President Bush was opposed to the movement, and Barbara
Bush once went so far as to describe it as "racist."
And while a number of figures in the Republican leadership have
been among the sponsors of official-language bills, most did not
become vocal enthusiasts of the policy until the successes of
English-only measures and of anti-immigrant initiatives like California's
Proposition 187 persuaded them that anti-immigrant politics might
have broad voter appeal. Senator Dole endorsed English-only in
the 1996 presidential campaign, and Newt Gingrich recently described
bilingualism as a menace to American civilization.

The successes of English-only are undeniably impressive. Polls
show between 65 percent and 86 percent of Americans favoring making
English the official language, and the U.S. English organization
currently claims more than 650,000 members. Largely owing to its
efforts, 18 states have adopted official-language measures via
either referenda or legislative action, with legislation pending
in 13 more (four other states have official-language statutes
that date from earlier periods). The majority of these laws are
largely symbolic, like the 1987 Arkansas law—which President Clinton
now says it was "a mistake" to sign—that states merely,
"The English language shall be the official language of the
state of Arkansas." But a few are more restrictive, notably
the measure adopted by Arizona voters in 1988, which bars the
state or its employees from conducting business in any language
other than English, apart from some narrow exceptions for purposes
like health and public safety. In 1996 the House passed H.R. 123,
which is similar in most respects to the Arizona law. (Its title
is the "English Language Empowerment Act," which as
the writer James Crawford has observed is a small assault on the
language in its own right.) The Senate did not act on the bill,
but it has been reintroduced in the current session; given the
present makeup of the Congress, there is a fair chance that some
legislation will be enacted in this session—though perhaps in
the watered-down version preferred by some Senate Republicans
who are apprehensive about offending Hispanic constituents. In
that form, as little more than a symbolic affirmation of the official
status of English, the bill would likely win the support of some
Democrats, and might prove difficult for Presi dent Clinton to

In any case, to the extent that the bill is symbolic, its adoption
is more or less facultative; the movement achieves most of its
goals simply by raising the issue. At the local level, the public
discussion of English-only has encouraged numerous private acts
of discrimination. In recent years, for example, dozens of firms
and institutions have adopted English-only workplace rules that
bar employees from using foreign languages even when speaking
among themselves or when on breaks. More generally, the mere fact
that politicians and the press are willing to take the proposals
of English-only seriously tends to establish the basic premise
of the movement: that there is a question about the continued
status of English as the common language of American public discourse.
In the end, the success of the movement should be measured not
by the number of official-language statutes passed, but by its
success in persuading people—including many who are unsympathetic
to the English-only approach—to accept large parts of the English-only
account of the situation of language in America.

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In rough outline, the English-only story goes like this: The result
of recent immigration has been a huge influx of non-English speakers,
who now constitute a substantial proportion of the population.
Advocates of English-only often claim that there are 32 million
Americans who are not proficient in English, a figure that will
rise to 40 million by the year 2000. Moreover, these recent arrivals,
particularly the Hispanics, are not learning English as earlier
generations of immigrants did. According to Senator Hayakawa,
"large populations of Mexican Americans, Cubans, and Puerto
Ricans do not speak English and have no intention of learning."

The alleged failure to learn English is laid to several causes.
There are the ethnic leaders accused of advocating a multiculturalist
doctrine that asserts, as Peter Salins describes it, that "ethnic
Americans [have] the right to function in their 'native' language—not
just at home but in the public realm." Government is charged
with impeding linguistic assimilation by providing a full range
of services in other languages, even as bilingual education enables
immigrant children to complete their schooling without ever making
the transition to English. Moreover, it is claimed, the peculiar
geographic situation of Hispanics creates communities in which
linguistic or cultural assimilation is unnecessary. For example,
Paul Kennedy (himself no supporter of English-only) writes of
an impending "Hispanicization of the American Southwest,"

Mexican-Americans will have sufficient coherence and critical
mass in a defined region so that, if they choose, they can preserve
their distinctive culture indefinitely. They could also undertake
to do what no previous immigrant group could ever have dreamed
of doing: challenge the existing cultural, political, legal, commercial,
and educational systems to change fundamentally not only the language
but also the very institutions in which they do business.

Once you accept all this, it is not hard to conclude, as Congressman
Norman Shumway puts it, that "the primacy of English is being
threatened, and we are moving to a bilingual society," with
all the prospects of disorder and disunity that bilingualism seems
to imply. As Senator Hayakawa wrote:

For the first time in our history, our nation is faced with the
possibility of the kind of linguistic division that has torn apart
Canada in recent years; that has been a major feature of the unhappy
history of Belgium, split into speakers of French and Flemish;
that is at this very moment a bloody division between the Sinhalese
and Tamil populations of Sri Lanka.

A U.S. English ad makes the point more graphically: A knife bearing
the legend "official bilingualism" slashes through a
map of the United States.

But the English-only story is nonsense from beginning to
end. Take, for starters, the claim that there are 32 million Americans
who are not proficient in English. To see how wild that figure
is, consider that the total number of foreign-born residents over
five years old is only 18 million, some of them immigrants from
other English-speaking countries and most of the rest speaking
English well. The actual Census figure for residents over five
who speak no English is only 1.9 million—proportionately only
a quarter as high as it was in 1890, at the peak of the last great
wave of immigration. And even if we include people who report
speaking English "not well," the number of residents
with limited English proficiency stands at around six million
people in all. This is not a huge figure when you consider the
extent of recent immigration and the difficulty that adults have
in acquiring a new language, particularly when they are working
in menial jobs that involve little regular contact with English
speakers. (Or to put it another way: More than 97 percent of Americans
speak English well, a level of linguistic homogeneity unsurpassed
by any other large nation in history.)

What is more, recent immigrants are in fact learning English at
a faster rate than any earlier generations of immigrants did—and
by all the evidence, with at least as much enthusiasm. Whatever
"multiculturalism" may mean to its proponents, it most
assuredly does not involve a rejection of English as the national
lingua franca. No ethnic leaders have been crazy enough to suggest
that immigrants can get along without learning English, nor would
any immigrants pay the slightest attention to such a suggestion
if it were made. According to a recent Florida poll, 98 percent
of Hispanics want their children to speak English well. And the
wish is father to the deed: Immigrants of all nationalities are
moving to English at a faster rate than ever before in our history.
The demographer Calvin Veltman has observed that the traditional
three-generation period for a complete shift to English is being
shortened to two generations. A recent RAND Corporation study
showed that more than 90 percent of first-generation Hispanics
born in California have native fluency in English, and that only
about 50 percent of the second generation still speak Spanish.

That latter figure suggests that for recent Hispanic arrivals,
as for many groups of immigrants that preceded them, becoming
American entails not just mastering English but also rejecting
the language and culture of one's parents. It is a regrettable
attitude (and the very one that English-only has battened on),
but the process seems inevitable: Relatively few Hispanics display
the fierce religious or patriotic loyalty to their mother tongue
that the Germans did a hundred years ago. The only exception is
the Cubans, who have a special political motivation for wanting
to hang on to Spanish, but even here the preference for English
is increasingly marked—a survey of first- and second-generation
Cuban college students in Miami found that 86 percent preferred
to use English in speaking among themselves. It is only the assimilated
third- and fourth-generation descendants of immigrants who feel
the loss of languages keenly, and by then it is almost always
too late. (For a linguist, there is no more poignant experience
than to watch a class of American college freshmen struggling
to master the basic grammar of the language that their grandparents
spoke with indifferent fluency.)

A number of factors contribute to the accelerated pace
of language shift among immigrants: the increased mobility, both
social and geographical, of modern life; the ubiquity of English-language
media; universal schooling; and the demands of the urban workplace.
In the nineteenth century, by contrast, many immigrants could
hold on to their native language for several generations at no
great cost: some because they lived in isolated farming communities
and required very little contact with English speakers, others
because they lived in one of the many states or cities that provided
public schooling in their native tongues. At the turn of the century,
in fact, more than 6 percent of American schoolchildren were receiving
most or all of their primary education in the German language
alone—programs that were eliminated only around the time of the
First World War.

All of this underscores the irony of the frequent claims that
unlike earlier generations, modern immigrants are refusing to
learn English—or that modern bilingual education is an "unprecedented"
concession to immigrants who insist on maintaining their own language.
In point of fact, there's a good chance that great-grandpa didn't
work very hard to learn English, and a fair probability that his
kids didn't, either. Today, by contrast, all publicly supported
bilingual education programs are aimed at facilitating the transition
to English. The programs are unevenly implemented, it's true,
owing to limited funding, to the resistance of school administrators,
and to the shortage of trained teachers. (An early study found
that 50 percent of teachers hired in "bilingual" programs
lacked proficiency in their students' native languages.) And in
any case such programs are available right now for only about
25 percent of limited-English students. Still, the method clearly
works better than any of the alternatives. An extensive 1992 study
sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences found that, compared
with various types of "immersion" programs, bilingual
education reduces the time to reach full English fluency by between
two and three years.

What of the other government programs that critics describe
as opening the door to "official bilingualism"? Measured
against the numerous social and economic motivations that limited-English
immigrants have for learning English, the availability of official
information in their own language is a negligible disincentive,
and there are strong arguments for providing these services. To
take an example that the English-only people are fond of raising,
why in the world would we want to keep immigrants with limited
English from taking their driver's license tests in their native
languages? Do we want to keep them from driving to work until
they have learned the English word pedestrian? Or to be
more realistic about it—since many of them will have no choice
but to drive anyway—do we want to drive to work on roads full
of drivers who are ignorant of the traffic laws?

In any event, these programs are extremely, even excessively,
limited. Federal law mandates provision of foreign-language services
only in a handful of special cases—interpreters must be provided
for migrant worker health care centers and for certain Immigration
and Naturalization Service procedures, for example—and a recent
General Accounting Office survey found that the total number of
federal documents printed in languages other than English over
the past five years amounted to less than one-tenth of 1 percent
of the total number of titles, hardly a sign of any massive shift
to multilingualism in the public realm.


Considered strictly in the light of the actualities, then, English-only
is an irrelevant provocation. It is a bad cure for an imaginary
disease, and moreover, one that encourages an unseemly hypochondria
about the health of the dominant language and culture. But it
is probably a mistake to try to engage the issue primarily at
this level, as opponents of these measures have tried to do with
little success. Despite the insistence of English-only advocates
that they have launched their campaign "for the immigrants'
own good," it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the needs
of non-English speakers are a pretext, not a rationale, for the
movement. At every stage, the success of the movement has depended
on its capacity to provoke widespread indignation over allegations
that government bilingual programs are promoting a dangerous drift
toward a multilingual society. The movement's supporters seem
to have little interest in modifying that story to take the actual
situation of immigrants into account. To take just one example,
there are currently long waiting lists in most cities for English-language
adult classes—around 50,000 people in Los Angeles County alone—but
none of the English-only bills that have been introduced in the
Congress make any direct provision for funding of such programs.
Who, after all, would care about that?

One indication of just how broadly the movement transcends any
immediate, practical concerns about immigrants is the success
it has had in regions where issues like immigration and multiculturalism
ought by rights to be fairly remote concerns. Of the states that
have passed official-English laws in recent years, only four (California,
Florida, Arizona, and Colorado) have large immigrant populations.
The remainder consist of western states like Montana, North and
South Dakota, and Wyoming; Indiana and New Hampshire; and all
of the southern and border states except Louisiana (apart from
Florida, the only state in the region with substantial numbers
of non-English speakers). The breadth of support for these measures
seems to increase as its local relevance diminishes, as witness
the 89 percent majority that the measure won in an Alabama referendum
and the unanimous or near-unanimous legislative votes for English-only
measures in states like Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky,
and Virginia. These are not the sorts of places where voters could
feel any imminent threat to English from the babel of alien tongues,
or indeed, where we would expect to see voters or legislators
giving much attention to immigration at all.

At the national level, then, English-only is not strictly
comparable to explicit anti-immigrant measures like Proposition
187, which raise genuine substantive issues. The English-only
movement has been successful because it provides a symbolic means
of registering dissatisfaction with a range of disquieting social
phenomena—immigration, yes, but also multiculturalism, affirmative
action, and even public assistance. (Not missing a trick, U.S.
English advocates like to describe bilingual programs as "linguistic
welfare.") By way of response, the movement offers an apparently
minimal conception of American identity: We are at the very least
a people who speak English.

It seems an unexceptionable stipulation. Even Horace Kallen, who
introduced the notion of "cultural pluralism" 70 years
ago as a counter to the ideology of the melting pot, readily acknowledged
that all Americans must accept English as "the common language
of [our] great tradition." But the decision to invest a language
with official status is almost never based on merely practical
considerations. Language always trails symbolic baggage in its
wake and frames the notion of national identity in a particular
way. That is why the designation of a national language is controversial
wherever the matter arises.

However, the actual significance varies enormously from one nation
to the next. Sometimes language is made the embodiment of a liturgical
tradition, as in various Balkan countries, and sometimes of a
narrowly ethnic conception of nationality, as in Slovakia or the
Baltic states. In the recent French debates over the status of
the language and the use of English words, the language is standing
in more than anything else for the cultural authority of traditional
republican institutions—a recent constitutional amendment declared
French not the national language, but la langue de la République.

Even in the American context, the case for English has
been made in very different ways over the course of the century.
For the nativists of Kallen's time, language was charged with
a specifically ideological burden. The imposition of English was
the cornerstone of an aggressive program of Americanization, aimed
at sanitizing immigrant groups of the undemocratic doctrines they
were thought to harbor. The laws passed in this period undid almost
all the extensive public bilingualism of the late nineteenth century,
particularly in the civic and political domains. The ability to
speak English was made a condition for citizenship in 1906, and
in 1915 an English-literacy requirement was added, over President
Wilson's veto. A 1919 Nebraska statute stipulated that all public
meetings be conducted in English; Oregon required that foreign-language
periodicals provide an English translation of their entire contents.
More than 30 states passed laws prohibiting or restricting foreign-language
instruction in primary schools.

The justification provided for these measures was a peculiar doctrine
about the connection between language and political thought, which
held that speaking a foreign language was inimical to grasping
the fundamental concepts of democratic society. The Nebraska supreme
court, for example, warned against the "baneful effects"
of educating children in foreign languages, which must "naturally
inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best
interests of their country." English was viewed as a kind
of "chosen language," the consecrated bearer of "Anglo-Saxon"
political ideals and institutions. A New York official told immigrants
in 1916: "You have got to learn our language because that
is the vehicle of the thought that has been handed down from the
men in whose breasts first burned the fire of freedom." (Like
many other defenders of this doctrine, he dated the tradition
from the Magna Carta, a text written, as it happens, in Latin.)

Taken literally, the chosen-language doctrine does not stand up
under scrutiny, either linguistically or philosophically. Nothing
could be more alien to the Enlightenment universalism of the Founders
than the notion that the truths they held to be "self-evident"
were ineffable in other languages. But it is almost always a mistake
to take talk of language literally. It was not our democratic
ideals that seemed to require expression in English, but the patriotic
rituals that were charged with mediating the sense of national
identity in the period, such as the obligatory schoolroom declamations
of the sacred texts of American democracy; and more broadly, the
Anglo culture in which those rituals were embedded. Theodore Roosevelt
made the connection clear when he said: "We must . . . have
but one language. That must be the language of the Declaration
of Independence, of Washington's Farewell Address, of Lincoln's
Gettysburg speech and second inaugural." The list is significant
in its omissions. English might also be the language of Shakespeare,
Emerson, and Melville, but its claim to merit official recognition
had to be made on political grounds, as the only cloth from which
our defining ideals could be woven.

In this regard, the "new nativism" is greatly
different from the old. The modern English-only movement makes
the case for a national language in what seem to be apolitical
(or at least, nonideological) terms. English is important solely
as a lingua franca, the "social glue" or "common
bond" that unites all Americans. Indeed, advocates are careful
to avoid suggesting that English has any unique virtues that make
it appropriate in this role. A U.S. English publication explains:
"We hold no special brief for English. If Dutch (or French,
or Spanish, or German) had become our national language, we would
now be enthusiastically defending Dutch." (It is hard to
imagine Theodore Roosevelt passing over the special genius of
English so lightly.)

On the face of things, the contemporary English-only movement
seems a less coercive point of view. Indeed, the movement often
seems eager to discharge English of any cultural or ideological
responsibility whatsoever. Its advocates cast their arguments
with due homage to the sanctity of pluralism. As former Kentucky
Senator Walter Huddleston puts it, Americans are "a generous
people, appreciative of cultural diversity," and the existence
of a common language has enabled us "to develop a stable
and cohesive society that is the envy of many fractured ones,
without imposing any strict standards of homogeneity." At
the limit, advocates seem to suggest that Americans need have
nothing at all in common, so long as we have the resources for
talking about it.

That is misleading, though. Language is as much a proxy for culture
now as it was at the turn of the century, except that now neither
English nor Anglo culture needs any doctrinal justification. This
explains why English-only advocates are so drawn to comparisons
with polities like Canada, Belgium, and Sri Lanka. Turn-of-the
century nativists rarely invoked the cases of Austria-Hungary
or the Turkish empire in making the case against multilingualism,
not because such scenarios were implausible—after all, the nativists
had no qualms about invoking equally implausible scenarios of
immigrant hordes inciting revolution—but because they were irrelevant:
What could Americans learn about their national identity from
comparisons with places like those? And the fact that Americans
are now disposed to find these specters plausible is an indication
of how far the sense of national identity has moved from its doctrinal
base. The ethnic divisions in Canada and Belgium are generally
and rightly perceived as having no ideological significance, and
the moral seems to be that cultural differences alone are sufficient
to fragment a state, even this one.

There are a number of reasons for the shift in emphasis.
One, certainly, is a generally diminished role for our particular
political ideology in an age in which it seems to lack serious
doctrinal rivals. Over the long term, though, the new sense of
the role of a common language also reflects the emergence of new
mechanisms for mediating the sense of national community—radio,
film, television—which require no direct institutional intervention.
And the effects of the new media are complemented by the techniques
of mass merchandising, which ensure that apart from "colorful"
local differences, the material setting of American life will
look the same from one place to another. ("To be American
is to learn to shop," Newt Gingrich observed not long ago,
without apparent irony.)

As Raymond Williams noted, the broadcast media aren't direct replacements
for traditional institutions: They do not inculcate an ideology
so much as presuppose one. In this sense they are capable of imposing
a high degree of cultural and ideological uniformity without explicit
indoctrination, or indeed, without seeming to "impose"
at all. This may help to explain why the English-only movement
appears indifferent to the schools or the courses in citizenship
that played such an important part in the program of the turn-of-the-century
Americanization movement, as well as to the theories about the
special mission of English that were so prominent then. It's hard
to imagine anyone making the case for English as the language
of Washington's farewell speech or Lincoln's second inaugural,
when students are no longer required to memorize or even read
those texts anymore. Of all our sacred texts, only the Pledge
of Allegiance and the national anthem are still capable of rousing
strong feelings. But these are, notably, the most linguistically
empty of all the American liturgy (schoolchildren say the first
as if it were four long words, and I have never encountered anybody
who is capable of parsing the second), which derive their significance
chiefly from their association with the non-linguistic symbol
of the flag.


It is inevitable, then, that modern formulations of the basis
of national identity should come to focus increasingly on the
importance of common experience and common knowledge, in place
of (or at least, on an equal footing with) common political ideals.
Michael Lind, for example, has argued that American identity ought
to be officially vested in a national culture, which has native
competence in American English as its primary index but is also
based on American "folkways" that include

particular ways of acting and dressing; conventions of masculinity
and femininity; ways of celebrating major events like births,
marriages, and funerals; particular kinds of sports and recreations;
and conceptions of the proper boundaries between the secular and
religious spheres. And there is also a body of material—ranging
from historical events that everyone is expected to know about
to widely shared but ephemeral knowledge of sports and cinema
and music—that might be called common knowledge.

Once we begin to insist on these cultural commonalities
as necessary ingredients of national identity, it is inevitable
that the insistence on English will become more categorical and
sweeping. Where turn-of-the-century Americanizationists emphasized
the explicitly civic uses of language, English-only casts its
net a lot wider. It's true that the movement has tended to focus
its criticism on the government bilingual programs, but only because
these are the most accessible to direct political action; and
within this domain, it has paid as much attention to wholly apolitical
texts like driver's license tests and tax forms as to bilingual
ballots. Where convenient, moreover, English-only advocates have
also opposed the wholly apolitical private-sector uses of foreign
languages. They have urged the California Public Utilities Commission
to prohibit Pac Tel from publishing the Hispanic Yellow Pages;
they have opposed the FCC licensing of foreign-language television
and radio stations; they have proposed boycotts of Philip Morris
for advertising in Spanish and of Burger King for furnishing bilingual
menus in some localities. For all their talk of "cherished
diversity," English-only advocates are in their way more
intolerant of difference than their nativist predecessors. "This
is America; speak English," English-only supporters like
to say, and they mean 24 hours a day.

The irony of all this is that there was never a culture or a language
so little in need of official support. Indeed, for someone whose
first allegiance is to the English language and its culture, what
is most distressing about the movement is not so much the insult
it offers to immigrants as its evident lack of faith in the ability
of English-language culture to make its way in the open market—and
this at the very moment of the triumph of English as a world language
of unprecedented currency. (A Frenchman I know described the English-only
measures as akin to declaring crabgrass an endangered species.)
The entire movement comes to seem tainted with the defensive character
we associate with linguistic nationalism in other nations. I don't
mean to say that English will ever acquire the particular significance
that national languages have in places like Slovakia or France.
But it's getting harder to tell the difference.

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