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 veto.
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.
IS ENGLISH REALLY ENDANGERED?
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," where
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.
LANGUAGE AS SYMBOLISM
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.