Monolingualism: the native language of intolerance?

Dennis Baron debaron at
Thu Jul 19 16:58:40 UTC 2007

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Monolingualism: the native language of intolerance?

It’s common for adults to dislike speakers of other languages.  We  
frequently read of students flunked, workers fired, and immigrants  
shown the door for speaking the wrong language.  Language can become  
an issue on the national scale as well, with speakers of the power  
language suppressing the competition, while minority-language  
communities push for recognition.  Even war can turn on language  
conflict: as far back as the biblical story of the shibboleth, one  
sure-fire way to tell friend from foe, before you killed them, was  
not by looks or ideology, but by the words they used.

Now a group of psychologists is suggesting that such potentially  
fatal language prejudice may be one of the earliest lessons we learn  
in life.  Researchers at Harvard and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en  
Sciences Sociales have found that infants as young as five months old  
prefer speakers of their own language to speakers of other languages,  
even before they themselves can talk. ...

While the researchers don’t actually claim that monolingualism breeds  
intolerance, they hint that bilingual babies may be more accepting of  
diversity.  And they suggest that because language is something we  
learn early in life, manipulating early language experience might  
actually help to reduce the social conflicts that emerge later on.


And supporters of immigration reform will certainly welcome these  
experiments, perversely, as proof that the best way to instill true  
Americanism in the young is to immerse them in an English-only  
environment by outlawing bilingual education as well as making  
English the official language and deporting anyone who doesn’t speak it.

Interested in this topic?  Read the rest on

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Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

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