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Monday, June 05, 2006

Official language?

Where Our Mouth Is

By Geoffrey Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary,
June 1, 2006


To hear supporters tell it, the Senate's decision to amend its immigration bill with a clause declaring English the national language is a purely symbolic gesture, like establishing a national anthem or proclaiming National Ergonomics Week. That isn't quite true -- the declaration could be used by states to deny various services, like providing interpreters for immigrants in child custody proceedings or Workers' Compensation hearings.[1] But the bill doesn't actually bar states or the federal government from providing bilingual services that are already being offered.[2]

That puts critics of the amendment in an awkward position -- say that you don't think it's a good idea and you're liable to hear, "You mean you don't think everybody needs to learn English?" That leaves you in the position of having to say, "Well, yes, of course but…" And in the prevailing political climate, arguments that begin with "Well, yes, of course, but…" have a hard time getting out of the starting gate.

But it's precisely the symbolism and timing of the declaration that make it such a loaded political gesture. For more than 200 years, after all, the United States and the English have been happily co-habiting without benefit of clergy, even in periods when there were proportionately more immigrants than there are today. Why do we suddenly need to officially tie the knot? Do immigrants really need to be sent a message about the importance of English in American life?

That seems to be what a lot of Americans believe. In a recent Pew survey, 60 percent of Americans said they thought immigrants weren't doing enough to learn English, and a large plurality said that immigrants today were less willing to adapt to the American way of life than immigrants in the early 1900's.

That's merely one more reminder of how easy it is for pollsters to get Americans to pronounce on matters that they couldn't possibly have an informed opinion about. If people were trying to give honest answers to a question about whether the pace of language assimilation has decreased over the past century, you'd expect 97 percent of them to say "Now how in the world would I know that?"

And as it happens, all the evidence suggests that it takes recent immigrants a generation or so less to learn English than it took the German, Polish, or Italian immigrants of the early 20th century. True, first-generation immigrants are often slow to learn the language, particularly if they live in ethnic enclaves and work at menial jobs. But their children are virtually all English-speaking, unlike the children of first-generation immigrants a century ago.

Immigrants aren't stupid, after all. Surveys show that 90 percent of Hispanic immigrants say that English is necessary to succeed in this country. In fact the biggest impediment to learning English these days is the shortage of English classes. Right now there are 20,000 people on waiting lists to get into English classes in Massachusetts, 6,000 in Maryland, 10,000 in Arizona, and so on down the line. But none of the immigration bills before the Congress provides a dime to make those waits any shorter, in what has to be a singularly literal example of not putting your money where your mouth is.

Still, people persist in believing that today's immigrants are unwilling to learn English. One reason for that may be that foreign languages are a lot more conspicuous in modern America than they were a century ago. Even if you don't actually encounter many immigrants, you're reminded of their presence whenever you click down the TV dial, get cash at an ATM, or drive past a Spanish-language billboard. That helps to explain why people who live in areas that have few immigrants are actually more likely to believe that immigrants aren't trying hard enough to learn English -- for that matter, they're also more likely to believe that Latin American immigrants increase crime. In the absence of any real contact with immigrants, those people have nothing to fall back on but familiar ethnic stereotypes and the alarm they feel when they see Spanish popping up on Burger King menus and socket-wrench instructions.

Those are the stereotypes that politicians are playing to when they make a show of insisting that immigrants have to learn English, as if some people were unclear on the concept. What's disturbing about that isn't just that it slights the good faith and intelligence of recent immigrants. It sells the majority culture short in the bargain.

Europeans may understand this better than we do. As it happens, I was attending a conference on language and law in Dusseldorf when the Senate amendment was adopted. When the topic came up at dinner, the European linguists and lawyers were a bit mystified by the declaration. Not that they don't have their own issues with language and immigrants, but did anybody in the US really think that the English language needed the government to step in to preserve it? To Europeans, saying that the English language needs preserving sounds a little like putting crabgrass on the endangered species list.

It should sound pretty ridiculous to us, too. But Americans seem to have lost sight of just how compelling our language and culture are. So long as America is a receptive society that rewards individual initiative, immigrants don't need any urging to learn English, provided they're given the opportunity. In fact, they're assimilating linguistically more rapidly than immigrants in Germany, France, or Spain, which are relatively less open societies than ours is. That's the irony of this business: our doubts about immigrants' willingness to adapt to American life are really the signs of a loss of faith in our own irresistible charm.


1. The amendment states that no one shall have "a right, entitlement or claim to have the government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services or provide materials in any language other than English" -- language that could be used by states to justify the denial of various bilingual services. Return

2. It's a matter of opinion whether the amendment amounts to declaring English the official language. The pro-official language group U.S. English claims that it does, and so does the well-known language-rights advocate James Crawford, who writes, "Let’s call this what it is: an official language measure." See also Ben Zimmer's discussion of this question in LanguageLog.

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