English language debate renews questions

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun May 21 13:16:25 UTC 2006

>>From the Seattle P-I, Saturday, May 20, 2006

English language debate renews questions


NEW YORK -- It's been 30 years, but Dick Tucker has no trouble recalling
the French signs posted inside city buses that crisscrossed Montreal: "In
French, we say it this way. We don't say it that way." Language is the
words to the lullabies we were sung as babies, the fabric of our
conversation around the dinner table, the whisper of prayer, the lessons
of school. It clearly evokes strong feelings, framing not just our speech,
but our thoughts. As U.S. lawmakers renew the long-standing debate over
whether to make English the nation's official language, those bus placards
make clear that Americans are hardly the first to stare into the sometimes
troubling mirror of linguistic self-image.

And just as in many other countries where people worry about protecting
the mother tongue - ironically, often from the global spread of English -
the debate here over whether English is endangered is largely about all
sorts of matters that have little to do with the words we speak. "Language
is never about language," said Walt Wolfram, a social linguist at North
Carolina State University. "Why should it be any different in the United
States?" That point is seconded by Tucker, an expert on language
education, planning and policy at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University.

"The discussion is ... related to fears of immigration issues. I think
it's related to a worry about the changing demography of the United
States. I think it's a worry about who will continue to have political and
economic influence," Tucker said. That debate has recycled on and off for
years. While the current push to declare English's primacy is relatively
new - this past week, the Senate passed two measures, one declaring
English the national's official language and the other its "common and
unifying" tongue - the notion of protecting the language has been kicked
around almost since the nation's founding. Before he became president,
John Adams lobbied in 1780 for the creation of a national academy to
refine, correct and improve the English language.  Adams' proposal died,
thanks to some lawmakers who saw it as a Royalist attempt to define
personal behavior.

But the idea of recognizing the special status of English lived on. Making
English the nation's official language won wide support during and after
World War I, when German-speaking immigrants constituted the nation's
largest minority. That era saw many of the accommodations that long been
accorded to immigrants - including bilingual education - shelved, said
James Crawford, author of "At War With Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in
an Age of Anxiety." The tide shifted in the 1960s, as immigration laws
were relaxed. But opposition to bilingual education, which had resumed,
swelled again in the late 1970s with concerns that immigrants were not
learning English fast enough.

That rekindled interest in English as an official language, a campaign
made official with California Sen. S.I. Hayakawa's introduction in 1981 of
the first bill ever introduced in Congress seeking such a change. In 1983,
Hayakawa founded U.S. English, the group that is still a primary mover
behind efforts to assert a national language. Still, the debate over
language here has been tame. "Language conflict is something that we've
really largely avoided in contrast to many other countries," Crawford
said. "English has been such a dominant force that assimilation has been
very rapid." Elsewhere, however, language has often stirred very strong

Some 158 nations have included a specific measure in their constitutions
promulgating one or more national languages, according to a survey by
Eduardo Faingold, a professor at the University of Tulsa. The United
States is one of the relatively few without such a measure. Language has
been the source of bitterness in countries like South Africa, where the
imposed teaching of Afrikaans to black South Africans was closely
associated with apartheid. Some nation's policing of language has gone far
beyond the verbiage in their constitution.

France's Academie Francaise is both admired and ridiculed for its
dedication to protecting the "langue de la nation" from words borrowed
from other tongues - particularly English. Canadian lawmakers have labored
to make clear that theirs is a bilingual nation, ensuring that everything
from cereal boxes to highway signs are written in both French and English.
Except, that is, in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec,
where English has been eliminated from most officially sanctioned
language. In Israel, the Academy of the Hebrew Language creates new Hebrew
words and rules on spelling and grammar. In Iceland, the government
established the Islensk Malstod, a national institute that considers and
crafts the new words needed to sustain a language that has changed little
in nearly 1,000 years.

That goal has become increasingly important as a means to keep up as
English has spread globally, asserting itself into business, science and
other fields that depend on a living, up-to-date language, said Ari Pall
Kristinsson, the director of the institute. He spoke - in English - by
telephone from Reykjavik. "(Icelandic) has a long history as a language
and that's generally regarded as some sort of treasure that you should
take care of," he said. Then again, most Icelanders also speak some
English, which gives them something in common with people in many
countries, whose lives have long involved speaking and being comfortable
with languages other than their own.

That might help explain the antagonism that language can stir in the
United States, where most people do not speak a second language and
experts say many remain uncomfortable hearing the unknown used around
them. But the recurring debate over English is almost certainly about more
than that, Wolfram and others say. The emotions surrounding language
resurface less because of the comfort people feel with English than with
the discomfort many American feel with everything that the influx of new
languages represents. A law establishing English as the official language
might be largely symbolic. Or it could lead governments to restrict
services it provides in other languages.

But could such a law change reality? In France, despite the best efforts
of the Academie Francaise to root out Franglais, people still talk about
their plans for "le weekend." And consider all those commercials in
Spanish, a regular feature now on American airwaves. Businesses realize
the value of speaking to people in whatever language makes them most
comfortable - and Crawford says that is something Americans will have to
make peace with. "It's never about the language," Wolfram said. "It's
always about the cultural behaviors that are symbolically represented by
language. That's what scares us."


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list