Hold Your Tongue


By James Crawford


There is nothing new about ethnic intolerance. But in the United States of the 1980s, it assumed a guise we had not seen before: the politics of English Only. 

Traditionally taken for granted, our national tongue emerged as a cause célèbre, a civic passion touching nearly every state house, the U.S. Congress, and numerous municipalities. The fervor was not so much for English as against the growing prominence of other languages. "Bilingualism" had arrived, to the dismay of many monolingual Americans. Some claimed it was now easier to function in English when traveling abroad than in the immigrant ghettos of U.S. cities. Apparently today's newcomers, unlike their predecessors, felt no obligation to learn our language. Did they expect us to learn Spanish? shocked Anglo-Americans wanted to know. Whose country was this, after all? Most amazing, government was pursuing policies that seemed to discourage English acquisition: bilingual schooling, bilingual driver's tests, bilingual welfare forms, even bilingual assistance in the voting booth. Could we afford to accommodate millions of new Americans literally scores of different language groups each in their own tongue? Would Congress soon be translating its proceedings, United Nations-style, with members listening through a headset? Where would it end? 

Such anxieties and resentments have given rise to a movement to declare English the nation's official language. While the objective may seem innocuous, the proposed means are not. A constitutional English Language Amendment seeks to prohibit most uses of other tongues by government (federal, state, and local) and, in some circumstances, by individuals. Whether it would achieve these aims no one can say with certainty. But, if adopted, the measure would jeopardize a wide range of rights and services now available to non-English speakers, from bilingual clerks at city hall to freedom of speech itself. At a symbolic level, Official English would be a way of telling newcomers, "Conform or get out." Indeed, that message has already been conveyed by the current agitation, polarizing several communities where Hispanics or Asians have settled. 

Americans are not accustomed to quarreling over language. Earlier generations of nativists were usually too preoccupied with immigrants' race or religion to worry whether their English skills were up to snuff. Contrary to melting pot mythology, newcomers often maintained their native tongues for generations on U.S. soil. Many fought for and, depending on their political clout, won concessions like bilingual public education, which was commonplace in nineteenth century "German America." Moreover, this country has a kind of libertarian tradition where language is concerned a democracy is not supposed to tell its citizens how to talk which may explain the Founders' "oversight" when it came to mandating an official tongue. 

This is not to say the tradition has been consistent. At various points in our history, linguistic minorities have faced policies of exclusion or coercive assimilation or both. Yet, unlike today's campaigns, these were normally aimed at particular groups for particular purposes for example, in the 1880s, when federal authorities decided that "the first step ... toward teaching the Indians the mischief and folly of continuing in their barbarous practices" was to force their children to attend English-only boarding schools; or in 1897, when Pennsylvania enacted an English-proficiency requirement for miners, seeking to bar Italians and Slavs from the coal fields; or in 1921, when Republicans in New York pushed through an English literacy test for voting, hoping to disfranchise one million Yiddish speakers who had an annoying habit of electing Democrats.

What distinguishes today's English Only phenomenon is the apocalyptic nature of its fears: that the American language is "threatened" and, with it, the basis of American nationhood. We are warned that unless action is taken to halt our "mindless drift toward a bilingual society," the United States will soon be balkanized, divided, at war with itself. Ostensibly to defend "the primacy of English," a new cadre of zealots is working to restrict speech in other tongues. And there is a real chance that such proposals could become law; in several states, they already have. 

Worries about the slipping status of English in the United States come, ironically, at a time when English continues to spread as a world language, the undisputed medium of international business, science, and statecraft. To be sure, this country is more diverse, linguistically and otherwise, than a generation ago. Immigration is the major reason. Exotic cultural enclaves have appeared not only in coastal cities, but throughout the heartland. In 1960, how many residents of Fort Smith, Arkansas, or Garden City, Kansas, would have foreseen a Vietnamese community in their midst? (How many had even heard of Vietnam?) Just as in the past, the newcomers find it natural to preserve remnants of their homeland food, customs, religion, and language that some Americans find jarring. The number of U.S. residents who speak a minority tongue at home increased by 41 percent during the 1980s. Yet at the same time, all available evidence shows that today's immigrants are learning English faster than ever before. By objective measures, bilingualism is no more prevalent now than in several earlier periods of U.S. history. 

So what accounts for the new English Only mentality? Some say bigotry. It is no coincidence that the targets of antibilingual campaigns are frequently racial as well as linguistic minorities. Leaders of U.S. English, the major lobby promoting an English Language Amendment, have expressed an animus toward Hispanics in particular. This organization is an outgrowth of the immigration restriction movement. One of its founders has warned that Spanish speakers may use their "greater reproductive powers" to seize political control in the United States. ("Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down!") A similar group, English First, complains: "Tragically, many immigrants these days refuse to learn English! They never become productive members of American society. They remain stuck in a linguistic and economic ghetto, many living off welfare and costing working Americans millions of tax dollars each year." It goes on to claim that "radical activists have been caught sneaking illegal aliens to the polls on election day and using bilingual ballots to cast fraudulent votes." The fact that U.S. English and English First have raised millions of dollars with such appeals suggests a sizable nativist constituency. 

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to assume that enthusiasm for Official English is driven solely, or even primarily, by such prejudices. According to opinion polls and election results, about three Americans in four are inclined to endorse the idea. Many ask: Shouldn't newcomers be expected to learn English, for their own good and the country's? What's racist about that? Nothing whatsoever. Bilingual accommodations are the issue. Should government be able to provide them, as needed, to ease immigrants' transition into this society? Should there be an affirmative right to certain services in minority tongues? Or should public-sector bilingualism be banned by law? When Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and the bilingual voting rights amendments of 1975, it galloped headlong into this arena with little foresight and almost no public discussion. Such an abrupt turn in policy was bound to provoke debate sooner or later. At last, language issues are beginning to receive some needed attention. It is only unfortunate that vital programs, for example, the schooling of limited-English-proficient children, are now held hostage to symbolic politics. 

English Only flows from insecurity. Now that demographic changes of all kinds greater mobility, nontraditional families, mass culture are disrupting Americans' sense of community, there is a renewed search for unifying institutions. With ethnic warfare spreading in eastern Europe, many are wondering when it will reach our shores. Already, there is talk of "tribalism" and "the disuniting of America" from those who fear that common ties are being frayed by group claims of all descriptions. Many fair-minded people, who otherwise cherish individual rights and cultural pluralism, are beginning to wonder whether the national tongue may be an exceptional case. Perhaps "unilingualism" is our best hope of managing diversity. If so, they feel, it becomes too precious to risk and legislating conformity becomes justifiable. 

It is the aim of this book to show how mistaken, how shortsighted, and how disastrous that view can be.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Copyright © 1992 by James Crawford. All rights reserved. Feel free to print or download this excerpt for personal use. But republication of this material in any form and for any purpose including course use and Internet postings is prohibited, except by permission of the author, at this email address. Before writing, please read my permissions FAQ.