[lg policy] Declaring an official language in the United States is unnecessary—and un-American

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Aug 5 15:00:56 UTC 2015

Declaring an official language in the United States is unnecessary—and
The American way of life is alive and well. (Reuters/Stringer)
Written by Jake Flanagin <http://qz.com/author/jakeqz/>
Obsession Language <http://qz.com/on/language/>
August 04, 2015

On July 31, Carlos Steven Baez was enjoying a meal with his mother at a
Southern California IHOP when an older white woman dining nearby overheard
them conversing in Spanish.

“We speak English here,” she scolded as a stunned Baez filmed
<https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=532661783550190&fref=nf>. “Go back to

“You can’t be doing that,” Baez replied. “That’s racist.”

The woman then launched into a nonsensical yet seemingly well-rehearsed
denunciation of bilingualism—linking it to Nazism and Stalinism while
name-dropping every autocrat from Hitler to Castro. “We want English in the
United States,” she said. “We have freedom of speech … we want that

Though clearly not representative of most Americans, this woman is hardly
the first to conflate American patriotic identity (as symbolized by a
superficial understanding of “freedom” and “liberty”) with policies
mandating English-only communication. Geopolitical history demonstrates the
authoritarian bent of one-language policies, as well as their inability to
produce greater nationalistic cohesion, as is so often their stated purpose.

 Geopolitical history demonstrates the authoritarian bent of one-language
policies, as well as their inability to produce greater nationalistic
cohesion. Though the United States has no official language at the federal
level, bills are continually introduced in both houses of Congress calling
for the establishment of English as the nation’s sole official language. (One
such bill, <https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/s678> proposed this
March by Oklahoma senator Jim Inhofe, is predictably titled the “English
Language Unity Act of 2015.”) Advocacy groups like ProEnglish—an
influential Virginia-based nonprofit—are a major force behind this kind of

The Southern Poverty Law Center classified ProEnglish—founded by notorious
xenophobe John Tanton
active anti-immigrant hate group in 2009. In 2013, ProEnglish provided
legal support to an Arizona community-college student suspended for a
number of reasons including complaining about students “speaking Spanish in
and out of class,” according to the Tucson Sentinel

The student in question, Terri Bennett, became something
of a folk hero
in the conservative press that year—a courageous figure standing resolute
against the tides of forced multiculturalism, reverse racism, and a
deterioration of American culture and values.

But what proponents of the English-only movement probably don’t realize is
that their closest ideological comrades are also some of their most
despised: zealots of the Chinese communist party. The People’s Republic of
China (PRC) is home to nearly 300 individual living languages
<http://www.ethnologue.com/country/CN>. And it is also home to one of the
strictest monolingual language policies in the world.

“From its inception, the central tenet of PRC language planning was to
promulgate Mandarin Chinese, no matter the ethnicity of the speaker,”
writes Arienne M. Dwyer, a Chinese and Altaic linguistic anthropologist at
the University of Kansas, in a May 2014 article for World Politics Review
Though the PRC “emphasizes that fluency and literacy in Mandarin are key
for individual economic advancement,” as English is in the United States,
Dwyer believes these individual-empowerment arguments are “intentionally

In Chinese schools, Mandarin is “a primary means of socialization of
minority and non-Mandarin Han students,” Dwyer claims. “So, in the
mid-1980s, Beijing began transferring minority pupils to schools in
Han-dominated China under the *neidi ban*, or inland class policy.”
Eventually a full third of secondary-school graduates from Tibet were
transferred, and by 2011, more than 23,000 of Tibetan primary-school
graduates had been forced to change schools as well. In Xinjiang, home to
the Uighurs, China’s largest Muslim minority, the ministry of education
announced in 2014 that “qualified high-school graduates” were to be sent to
inland China for four years to participate in “Xinjiang classes.” These
special courses were engineered to teach Uighur youth to “love the
socialist motherland [and] safeguard national unity.”

These policies bear troubling similarities to those used by US and Canadian
residential boarding schools in the the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Designed to forcibly assimilate Native American/First Nations youth, the
institutions did little to ameliorate the overall conditions of indigenous
communities in either country. “Little wonder that Tibetans and Uighurs
consider these policies to be at best linguicide,” Dwyer adds.

The 1976 Soweto Uprising—a bloody protest
<http://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/jun/14/southafrica.gideonmendel> led
by black South African high-school students against the white-supremacist
government—is another example of the problems endemic to one-langauge
policies. Students from area schools flooded the streets of Soweto Township
to protest the imposition of the Afrikaans language in schools, only to be
brutally dispersed by police. The uprising is widely viewed as the beginning
of the end
<http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/06/16/soweto.uprising.photograph/> of
apartheid in South Africa, although the policy wouldn’t be fully demolished
until 1994. But it also stands as substantial proof of the divisiveness and
ineffectiveness of forced monolingualism policies. Clearly, already
disadvantaged groups aren’t likely to develop any  Good, old-fashioned,
anti-immigrant nativism is alive and well. further affinity for a state
that dictates how they communicate.

>From a communication perspective, these types of one-language policies
aren’t even necessary in the United States. Immigrant groups tend to
linguistically assimilate within a single generation, as was the case with
Germans, Italians, Poles, and Greeks in the early 20th century. The same
can be said for Hispanic Americans: a 2007 Pew study found that English
fluency jumps 65%
between first and second generations.

Which brings us back to the unfortunate incident at IHOP. While the woman
in question is an extreme example, the kernel of her anti-immigrant
sentiment is nevertheless identifiable in conservative elements across the
US political landscape. As recent comments
by GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump indicate, good, old-fashioned,
anti-immigrant nativism is alive and well—the same kind of rhetoric used by
turn-of-the-century xenophobes to discriminate against immigrants from
Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe

The American “way of life” isn’t under attack, because the American way of
life cannot be distilled to a single cultural condition or experience. As
it always has, the story of America is a story that is ever-expanding,
growing richer and more textured—which is kind of the *point* of this
country to begin with, isn’t it?
In its organizational mission, ProEnglish claims “in a pluralistic nation
such as ours, the function of government should be to foster and support
the similarities that unite us, rather than institutionalize the
differences that divide us.” Which is to say that the function of
government should be to foster monism—a theory that denies the existence of
distinctions or multiplicity in society. Federally enforced linguistic (and
by extension cultural) homogeneity? That’s about as un-American as one can

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