The perceived threat of linguistic diversity

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Jan 28 16:36:32 UTC 2007

Friday, January 26, 2007
The Perceived Threat of Linguistic Diversity

In a recent discussion about culture and cultural diversity, of which I
was more of a bystander than active participant, the topic moved to race,
as so many of these kinds of discussions do. And its at this point in such
discussions that I usually move on, but it wasnt before one of the
participants made the comment that he found the steady influx of
immigrants to be a threat to his own culture, listing the ways: loss of
his own cultures physical features through interbreeding; loss of jobs to
immigrant workers; the strain on the educational system; etc. The one
concern that really stuck in my mind, even after I checked out of the
discussion, was the threat to his cultures language as the language of
immigrants replaces or infuses his own.

Language is no doubt an integral part of culture. If you accept the
Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, as many linguists do, then you understand that
language influences habitual thought through a kind of linguistic
determinism (language determines the way we think). The extent to which
language affects culture is debatable, but its clear that as languages
both infuse and diffuse with cultures, changes in culture occur.

In my own community in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, the influence
of the Mexican culture is prominent and the affect of the Spanish language
obvious. Most businesses and government offices have literature in both
Spanish and English, and many businesses exist that cater only to
Spanish-speakers. It certainly helps to understand at least a smattering
of Spanish when conducting day-to-day business and greatly improves ones
chances of being hired if bilingual.

This linguistic diversity doesnt come without a fair bit of resistance and
rejection, however. Many of my neighbors are quick to associate cultural
presence of Spanish-speakers to the problem of illegal immigration and, in
some ways, this is a fair association. The population of illegal
immigrants in North Texas is significant, but it isnt clear to what extent
the illegal population is a sub-set of the much larger, overall Hispanic
immigrant culture here. It is clear, however, that language can be a
cultural divider as easily as it can a unifier. Shops in predominantly
Hispanic neighborhoods whose signage is only in Spanish generally cater to
only Hispanic customers. The obverse isnt true, of course, since one can
visit any Wal-Mart or McDonalds and find Hispanic customers who speak
little or no English. But rarely will the average white Texan shop at the
local taqueria or Mexican market. A local chain of pizza restaurants,
Pizza Patron, have recently fallen under heavy criticism and even threats
simply for deciding to accept pesos from customers, giving dollars as

Part of the resistance to change in culture is reasonable: being around
those whose language you dont understand is naturally disconcerting;
trying to conduct business with speakers of foreign languages is
challenging; and obtaining or sharing an education can be difficult to say
the least. But looking back on the concern mentioned in the first
paragraph, the danger of losing ones culture, particularly language, to
immigrants seems largely unfounded. It is true that changes will occur in
any culture that allows another to infuse with it, but its also true that
the diffusing culture changes as well. In both directions change will
occur some good, some bad. But I truly wonder about the efforts that some
in government are taking to see to it that English is the "official
language" and I worry about those that think if they can control the
language people speak, they can "preserve their culture." There are
endangered languages in the world, but English isnt one of them. Indeed,
English is one of the languages that is fast wiping out many others.

In North America, only about 194 languages remain out of the hundreds that
once existed. 73 of these are spoken only by adults over 50 and 49 spoken
only by a scant few individuals. These figures are, at best, from the
1990s, so theyre certainly much lower baring some sudden, massive revival
where young people took the time to learn the languages of their elders. I
heard it said once that Oklahoma was home to more dialects and languages
than all of Europe. I dont know if this is true or not, but the Native
American population in the state is high. Interestingly enough, its also
where a state-level Senator is pushing a bill to make English the official
language. In her words:

	The purpose of this bill is to establish a policy that unifies the
	state...It unites us as a common people with diverse cultures. It unites
	us with a common language... English is the language of success. If you
	want to succeed in government, economy or school you have to be able to
	speak English, Senator Kathleen Wilcoxson, R-Oklahoma City, said.

Instead of passing laws restricting languages, we should be focused more
on teaching them. I have friends in Europe who I converse with on a
regular basis whose first languages are German and Danish, yet their
mastery of English rivals that of many Americans their age. In the United
States, we appear to be slow to figure out what Europeans have long
understood: speaking and writing in only one language is a limiting factor
in economics, academia, and politics.

I'll leave this post with a quote from the Linguistic Society of America
and its position on "English only," which is a measure that consistently
rears its ugly head on both state and national levels:

	The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests
	that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic
	advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional
	compulsion to learn the language.

	American unity has never rested primarily on unity of language, but rather
	on common political and social ideals.

	History shows that a common language cannot be imposed by force of law,
	and that attempts to do so usually create divisiveness and disunity. This
	has been the effect, for example, of the efforts of the English to impose
	the English language in Ireland, of Soviet efforts to impose the Russian
	language on non-Russian nationalities, and of Franco's efforts to impose
	Spanish on the Basques and Catalans.

	It is to the economic and cultural advantage of the nation as a whole that
	its citizens should be proficient in more than one language, and to this
	end we should encourage both foreign language study for native English
	speakers, and programs that enable speakers with other linguistic
	backgrounds to maintain proficiency in those languages along with English.


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