Could a nation of immigrants be losing its common tongue?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat May 6 14:25:39 UTC 2006

>>From the Dallas Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, Posted on Thu, May. 04, 2006

Could a nation of immigrants be losing its common tongue?

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

English may be on the tip of the world's tongue in trade, travel and
diplomacy, but many Americans apparently fear that we're saying adios to
it at home. The outraged blogs and stern presidential response after the
release of a Spanish version of the national anthem last week dramatized
how volatile the language issue has become against the backdrop of the
debate on whether illegal immigrants should be granted legal status or
deported. "One of the things that's very important is ... that we not lose
our national soul," said President Bush, who has spoken Spanish in public
addresses. "I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English, and I
think people who want to be a citizen ought to learn English and they
ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English." Experts say the
talk about language is ultimately part of a larger discussion about race,
power and what we want being American to mean.

"Language is standing in as a proxy for issues that we find difficult to
discuss, said Keith Walters, a University of Texas at Austin linguistics
professor. "Language becomes a symbolic battlefield. "There're really
much, much more complex debates going on. It's very hard to have those
discussions. We know there's not a shared set of answers we have." James
Crawford, a former Washington editor of Education Week who now writes on
language and education policy, said the language issue has a history of
popping up. "It's closely related to attitudes about immigration," said
Crawford. "It is a cyclical thing." Countless cultural, historic and
political institutions, including the Constitution, television, sports,
shopping at Target, education and driving on the right-hand side of the
road, mold Americans' identity.

But we are a nation of immigrants, not united by a gene pool, income
equality, monarchy or state church. "Because Americans don't automatically
share a lot of other things,"  Walters said, "this probably encourages
some Americans to see language as one thing we should share." The online
political forum credits former presidential candidate
Pat Buchanan as advocating "a national campaign of assimilation to teach
newly adopted Americans our culture, history, traditions and language."
About 37 million foreign-born people live in the U.S. Citing an estimate
from the March 2005 Current Population Survey, the Pew Hispanic Center
recently reported that undocumented immigrants total more than 11 million
people, or 30 percent of the foreign-born U.S. population.

Multicultural roots

America has never spoken a single language. There were significant groups
of non-English speakers even during colonial times. "From the beginning
we've been multicultural," said Walters. "That doesn't mean we've got it
right. It means we've had some experience." Census data show that in 1890,
America had triple the percentage of non-English speakers as it did in
2000. The 1890 Census also found cities with substantial
non-English-speaking populations, such as Milwaukee, where 20 percent of
residents spoke no English, Crawford said. According to the 1900 Census,
about 600,000 American elementary school students were receiving part or
all of their instruction in German, Crawford said.

That census found that 35 percent of Chicago's population was
foreign-born. In 1910 it was 36 percent, and in 1920 it was 30 percent.
World War I and America's anti-German hysteria prompted legislation that
banned the language in schools and other public places. By 1922, less than
1 percent of American schoolchildren received instruction in German,
Crawford said. Language, the experts point out, is neither a guarantee of
unity nor a wedge that inevitably splits nations. China and Taiwan have
one language but remain politically divided. Ditto for North and South

Switzerland, on the other hand, has become one of the world's most stable
democracies, despite having four official languages: French, German,
Italian and Romansch. Canada is bilingual, and India, the world's most
populous democracy, has two official languages, Hindi and English. "We can
point to places like Ireland where sharing a language hasn't kept people
from killing each other," said Walters. Crawford noted that both sides in
America's Civil War spoke English. "It's a debatable point to me that
having a common language solves all your problems," said Crawford. "Having
both sides speaking the same language didn't have much impact."

A thriving language

Fears that Americans will at some point trade English for Spanish are
unfounded, according to Werner Sollors, a Harvard English professor who
specializes in minority writing in the United States. "I think with the
growth of American pop culture, the idea that America is the graveyard of
foreign languages is truer than ever," said Sollors. Sollors agreed with
Crawford that immigrants are not only learning English: They're now
becoming English speakers in two generations instead of three. "It's
nonsense, the idea that English is threatened," said Crawford. The
proximity of Mexico makes it possible for some immigrants and their
children to have what Walters calls a "transnational identity," with ties
to both countries. But our pervasive pop culture accelerates the process
of inducing immigrants to speak English.

"You could live in rural Missouri for four or five generations without
having a real need to speak English," before the days of radio, telephones
and TV, said Crawford. "That's just not possible now. "The children of
immigrants are very rapidly losing the ability to speak their parents' and
grandparents' language," Crawford said. "There's very little resistance to
English from newcomers." The economy also provides an incentive. "There's
a payoff," Crawford said. Even in heavily Hispanic cities such as Miami,
young people who grow up in Spanish-speaking homes speak English to
differentiate themselves from more recent arrivals, Sollors said.

America isn't the only nation debating what to do about immigrants and the
language. Australia is considering an English test for immigrants. "Given
increasing globalization," said Walters, "everyplace is dealing with
questions of immigration." That doesn't always come easy in a place like
America, where two oceans kept much of the world at bay while settlers
erased most of the original inhabitants and their languages. "Americans
aren't used to dealing with most kinds of differences," said Walters.
"That's just part of our legacy. It was set up for us."

Yet while we debate immigration and the languages that immigrants bring to
America, a few things should be kept in mind, Walters said. "All debates
about immigration are about purity," said Walters. "It's very hard to keep
discussions from having racial or racist overtones. "It's hard for us to
talk about this. It is much easier for us to have fights about what
language the national anthem should be sung in."

John Austin, (817) 548-5418
jaustin at

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list