[lg policy] Does the United States Need a Language Policy?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Mar 13 18:10:20 UTC 2011

Does the United States Need a Language Policy?
by Bernard Spolsky, Professor Emeritus, Bar-Ilan University, Israel
2010 Ferguson Fellow, Center for Applied Linguistics

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Some nations include a language policy in their constitution. For
example, France declared French as its official language in amending
its constitution before it joined the European Community in 1992, and
many Arab countries combine a statement about Arabic as their national
language alongside their proclamation of Islam as their official
religion. More than half of national constitutions include one or more
language clauses establishing national or official languages (Jones,
2001). Sixty-three countries name one official language; in addition,
there are seven former Soviet republics that establish a single state
language and another eight states with one official language and one
or more national languages.

Other countries have established language laws outside of their
constitutions. For example, New Zealand, where English is dominant,
has laws making Maori and New Zealand Sign Language official languages
along with English. Israel maintains Hebrew and Arabic as the only
official languages. Mexico has a law requiring public announcements to
be in correct Spanish. The Netherlands requires Dutch for
administration but grants some limited functions to Friesian. Norway
(whose constitution is written in Danish) requires official documents
to be in two varieties of Norwegian: Bokmäl and Nynorsk. Puerto Rico,
a U.S. territory, has a law making English and Spanish official
(Leclerc, 1994).
History of Language Policies, Laws, and Attitudes in the United States

The U.S. Constitution says nothing about language (though it asserts
freedom of speech in the First Amendment). During and after the war of
independence, the issue of a national language did come up but was
left without any formal decision. Independence from British rule did
not lead to seeking a new national language, although there were later
moves to mark formally the distinctions of an American language,  like
the spellings that Noah Webster proposed (Weinstein, 1982). Marshall
(1986, p. 11) has no doubt: “The Founding Fathers of our country did
not choose to have an official language precisely because they felt
language to be a matter of individual choice.” Recent efforts by U.S.
English to make English the official language have so far been firmly
resisted, so their efforts have been redirected to resolutions of city
governments and state legislatures.

U.S. language policy has to be sought beyond the Constitution. During
the First World War, xenophobic feelings bolstered by war-induced
nationalism focused not just on learning English but also, driven by
anti-German sentiment, on discarding allegiances other than to the
United States. German books were removed from libraries, German
theatres were closed, German music was banned, and the teaching of
German stopped in schools (Pavlenko, 2002). Thirty states passed laws
obliging foreign-born residents who could not speak English to attend
evening schools, and thirty-four states made English the only language
of instruction in public schools. By the end of the period, earlier
positive attitudes toward bilingualism had been replaced by a
widespread belief that it had little to contribute and that the
teaching of foreign languages in school was a bad thing. Bilingualism
became associated with inferior intelligence and lack of patriotism.
Pavlenko believes that by the 1930s, American ideology was firmly

But there were exceptions. Even before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, U.S.
courts had on a number of occasions defended the rights of speakers of
languages other than English. In 1923, the Supreme Court ruled in
Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) that while the states could require English
as the medium of instruction in tax-supported schools, they could not
do this for private schools. In 1926, when the Philippines were still
a U.S. territory, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a Philippine
Bookkeeping Act that prohibited the keeping of accounts in languages
other than English, Spanish, or Philippine dialects violated the
Philippine Bill of Rights, which Congress had patterned after the U.S.

In 1958, in response to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellites,
Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which provided
encouragement and financial support for the teaching of Russian and
Chinese and other critical languages (Urban, 2010). During the civil
rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Congress provided funding for
bilingual education programs that would teach immigrant pupils in
their home language while they were learning the English that all
agreed they needed in order to enjoy citizenship. In a comment that
attests to his years of experience as an H.M. (Her Majesty’s)
Inspector of Schools in England and Wales, E. G. Lewis (1980, p. 369)
remarks that “Policy is decided and determined by those who,
reluctantly or willingly, are prepared to pay for it.” This is what
made the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 such a significant decision
in the history of U.S. language management. For 34 years, this law
provided funding for educational programs that taught students in
languages other than English.
Current Status of Language Policies, Laws, and Activities in the United States

The Bilingual Education Act expired on January 8, 2002, dying a quiet
death. (See Crawford, 2002, for an obituary of the law.) Similar state
programs have been under attack from English-only activists (Brauer,
2006). In addition, U.S. education is slowly ending or downgrading its
few foreign language programs: Many universities and colleges no
longer require a foreign language, and elementary and secondary
schools have moved their efforts to preparing students for
standardized tests in English and mathematics as a result of the 2002
federal education law, No Child Left Behind. The law’s accountability
measures, which focus exclusively on English and mathematics, have led
many schools to drop foreign language classes and other nontested
subjects. Rhodes and Pufahl (2010) report that the teaching of French,
German, Japanese, and Russian decreased at the elementary and
secondary level between 1997 and 2008, and a third of the schools they
surveyed that had foreign language programs reported that they had
been negatively affected by No Child Left Behind.

One exception to the decrease in foreign language instruction involves
the defense and intelligence establishment. Just as during the first
years of World War II the Army was persuaded to start programs to
teach languages to recruits who would be sent overseas (Angiolillo,
1947; Spolsky, 1995), so in the years since 9/11 the defense and
intelligence communities have seen fit to undertake major efforts to
make sure that the United States will no longer have just one Pashto
speaker working for the National Security Agency and none for the CIA
when it wants to know what is happening in Afghanistan (Powers, 2002),
and that soldier interpreters will be available when forces are sent
overseas. The goals of the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap
(U.S. Department of Defense, 2005), developed to meet the need for
greatly increased language capacity in the defense community, are
ambitious: language policy officers at all levels, competence in
foreign languages for all officers, the strengthening of the Defense
Language Institute as the major U.S. language teaching institution.
These defense-related activities are needed to make up for the lack of
foreign language instruction in the educational establishment. These
activities even include the establishment of model K–16 language
programs that take heritage speakers of Chinese and Arabic to high
levels of language competence while they are developing professional
skills in science, engineering, and other fields (Spolsky, 2001).

These activities are of course open to criticism—for example, that we
are teaching foreign languages so that we can defend ourselves or
invade other nations, or that we are emphasizing practical skill and
missing out on the cultural values that come from a humanities
approach that would open our students to other rich literatures and
knowledge (Parker, 1961). We also are continuing to treat foreignness
as inimical and foreign languages as enemy territory, even when they
are the heritage cultures of our own immigrants.
The Role of English

This limited perspective on languages is not restricted to the United
States. In many national educational systems, the teaching of English
dominates and has replaced instruction in other languages (Lambert,
2006). The European Community has an official policy calling for
schools to teach two foreign languages, intending that English will
not be the only one, but with all their efforts, they find that this
policy is seldom implemented with any energy. In Europe, over half
claim they speak a language other than their mother tongue. For most,
this language is English. The motivation is obvious: Grin (2001) has
shown that in Switzerland, a person with skills in English earns up to
30% more than someone with matched qualifications apart from English.
So it is understandable that three quarters want their children to
learn English for the increased job opportunities it provides.

In Asian and African nations, English similarly dominates and drowns
out calls for teaching other useful and valuable languages. In much of
the world, speakers of endangered languages are moving through a
two-step process, first to drop their own heritage language for the
locally dominant official language and then to add English, which they
believe will give them access to better jobs and economic

English of course dominates in the United States as well, even in
immigrant communities. Research shows that within two or three
generations, most non-English-speaking immigrants to the United States
will have lost or almost lost their heritage languages. Ironically,
while the number of residents speaking a language other than English
at home is rising, the shift to English is proceeding even faster. The
causes of this language loss are complex. Most researchers see the
major reasons as related to the power and international status of
English in the media and the economy.
The Need for Language Policies in the United States

In setting out the nature of U.S. national security needs for
languages and international expertise, Brecht and Rivers (2000) cite
the 1988 amendment to Title VI of the Higher Education Act:

    The security, stability, and economic vitality of the United
States in a complex, global era depends upon American experts in and
citizens knowledgeable about world regions, foreign languages and
international affairs, as well as upon a strong research base in the

Brecht and Rivers (2000) also provide a long list of countries and the
language knowledge that offers access to each country and its culture.
Such a huge task cannot be dealt with by the kind of programs
developed during World War II to teach language to soldiers. Existing
government language programs such as those offered by the Defense
Language Institute and the Foreign Service Institute meet a small
portion of the need, inadequate both in numbers and proficiency. (It
has only recently been realized that overseas postings require level 4
rather than level 3 proficiency, although the latter is the highest
level aimed at in most programs.)

Fluent speakers could be produced much more effectively through
enriched heritage language pro­­grams. The capacity available has been
suggested: “Census statistics for the year 1999 indicate that 10% of
the American population, a total of 25,831,000 people, was
foreign-born. This is the largest number of foreign-born residents in
U.S. history” (UCLA Steering Committee, 2000). Brecht and Ingold
(1998) are more specific: “More than 150 languages other than English
are used in this country.” But most of this capability is currently
wasted. Wiley (2007, p. 79) argues that a language policy “based on
the current and historical reality of multilingualism in this country”
could be valuable. But the dominant status of English, together with
the power of overt and covert policies supporting English only, leads
to a dramatic loss of heritage language knowledge in the United States
(UCLA Steering Committee, 2000). What kind of language policy could
reverse this loss? Fishman (2001) showed how difficult is the task for
individual languages. A monolingual English-only hegemony seems to
dominate American society.  However, the General Social Survey
(Robinson, Brecht, & Rivers, 2006; Robinson, Rivers, & Brecht, 2006)
suggested that while Americans believed that English should be their
official language, three quarters agreed that children should learn
other languages in high school, 65% that foreign languages are as
important as learning math and science, and 67% that English is not
threatened by languages spoken by immigrants. Thus, there may well be
an ideological base for the encouragement of heritage languages, even
though it is not revealed in current political support for foreign
language instruction, as seen in the general exclusion of languages
from both Republican and Democrat education planning.
The Model of Europe

How might we change this damaging neglect? Europe offers one model of
multilingualism. What is critically different from the United States
is the high proportion of people with multilingual skills. As
mentioned earlier, more than half of Europeans claim to speak more
than one language, and three quarters want their children to learn
English. Given this, it is no wonder that the Council of Europe was
able a quarter of a century ago to start building its major program
for encouraging foreign language learning that has now culminated in
the Common Framework (Council of Europe, 2001), which provides a
common basis for the development of language syllabi, curriculum
guidelines, exams, textbooks, and so forth across Europe.

Three points are relevant about the situation in Europe: Much of the
effort  has gone into developing a second foreign language, with
English so well entrenched as the first. Second, the Council of Europe
programs focused on foreign language teaching for native speakers of a
country’s official language; they left the urgent issues of immigrants
and minority language speakers to others. And third, the Council is
now in its declining days, without funds, and it is too early to be
sure that the European Union will carry on these basic programs.

But the European Union did tackle a second side of language policy:
the concern for minority heritage languages. This followed from its
interests in human rights, an ideal mechanism to let a European
supranational organization involve itself in the affairs of its
members. The programs have been modest, and the decisions on what
constitutes a European minority language were made with a great deal
of sensitivity to national concerns (e.g., Romany, the language of the
Roma—formerly known as Gypsies—gains little; Occitan, a regional
language spoken in the south of France, is not named at all). But
human rights did play a major role in supporting moves for the
official recognition of heritage languages and the reversal of
language shift activities to prevent the loss of endangered languages.
The improving status of Basque, Catalan, Welsh, Breton, Friesian, and
some other languages is an important result of these efforts. However,
even as the European Union takes over Council of Europe foreign
language interests, there is no evidence that they see the connections
between the three different kinds of language programs: foreign
languages, heritage languages, and immigrant languages.

The only amalgam of these three ultimately related issues was in the
temporarily successful alliance that Joe Lo Bianco formed that led to
the establishment of Language Australia (Lo Bianco, 1987), a
progressive multilingual policy unfortunately replaced after a few
years by a program emphasizing English and later by a call for
teaching Pacific languages like Chinese and Indonesian (Lo Bianco &
Wickert, 2001). Elsewhere, the interests of these three areas are
perceived as competing, and the mutual advantages of joining in a
single policy are ignored.

Principles for U.S. Language Policy

What is needed is to bring together the issues of foreign, heritage,
and immigrant languages and start to build a unified policy that will
include heritage languages, national security, and the traditional
values of learning other languages and cultures. Basic to a U.S.
language policy must be a number of principles. The first is the
development of policies  to ensure that there is no linguistic
discrimination—that languages and speakers of specific languages are
not ignored in the provision of civic services. As Wiley (2007)
suggests, immigrant language policies need provision for both
“protective rights” from discrimination as well as “rights of access”
to instruction. The second principle is the provision of adequate
programs for teaching English to all, native-born or immigrant, old or
young. The third is the development of respect both for multilingual
capacity, the cognitive advantages of which have been shown
(Bialystok, 2001), and for diverse individual languages. Arising out
of this will be approaches that enhance the status and enrich the
knowledge of heritage and community languages. Fourth will be a
multi-branched language capacity program that

    * strengthens and integrates a variety of language education programs,
    * connects heritage programs with advanced training programs,
    * builds on heritage and immersion and overseas-experience
approaches to constantly replenish a cadre of efficient multilingual
citizens capable of professional work using their multilingual skills,
    * provides rich and satisfying language instruction that leads to
a multilingual population with knowledge of and respect for other
languages and cultures.


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