Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Doubleplusgood Amendment!

The text of the Inhofe amendment (SA 4604, reproduced below in part) attached today to the Senate version of the immigration bill (S. 2611) declares English to be our national language:

The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America. Unless specifically stated in applicable law, no person has 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.

How heartwarming it is that the Senate has chosen to score a few precious political points by making just that much harder for those who don't speak English so well to have access to their government! True, most people in the world live in multi-lingual nations... but not us, no sir! I guess since we haven't really been particularly welcoming to immigrants lately anyway (just ask anyone who has had to deal with the INS!) it makes sense that the Senate has finally decided just to put all of our friends and family from around the world on notice: we're not even going to try anymore.

Fortunately there is no attendant legislation to create an "American Academy" to preserve and enhance the English language. (Besides, one wonders how they would deal with all those other "flavours" of English...) And at least it's not Newspeak... yet.


Anonymous said...

I bet it gets nixed. The Democrats won't want to loose the support of the Hispanics. Either will Republicans for that matter.

Then again, my hopes have often been dashed. As I ahve heard it said, the language of Shakespeare doesn't need no protectin'. This is all about hostility to illegal immigrants without recognizing that many immigrants are legal. Again, they legislate for the sound bite rather than capturing the nuance. 

// posted by USwest

Anonymous said...

FYI, the "applicable law" is the US Constitution, XIV Amendment, which states that all persons are entitled to equal protection of the law. Not all citizens. Not all Republicans. Not all right-wing Christians, but all PERSONS. One's native tongue does not make one less of a person, or less deserving of understanding one's government. The courts have consistently ruled that, where it matters, governments must try to communicate with people in a language they understand.

I'm just delighted at Imhofe's bill, though. I love it when Republicans put themselves on record as bigots who hate dem lazy Meskins. Sign it, GW, and watch Jeb's Cuban backers melt away.

Of course, I believe that English should be declared our official national language. For one, it's no big deal: practically every other country has an offical language. Two, it would make it easier to justify mandating that everyone be taught English as soon as possible, not for phony reasons of economic benefit, but for it's own sake. I have said before, to boos on this blog, that English is a precious instrument of national unity. I agree with that. I want to promote it, and to make sure our kids speak our language ("our" includes recent and illegal immigrants, of course! - because "we" is not white folks or citizens, but all those here in our country).

I see absolutely no contradiction between saying that I want to promote English as our national and official language, but I want to make sure that we conduct business in as many lanugages as is necessary to make sure each person understands everything they have a right to hear. So print ballots in dozens of languages. No big deal. But provide free English classes to all who want it, and use every opportunity to encourage those classes (for example, I would ask that drivers' licenses be attached to a requirement to take some 'basic road English' classes - gotta be able to read parking signs).

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG writes, "practically every other country has an offical language." LTG also writes, "English is a precious instrument of national unity." Well, the first is not quite true, and the second is debatable.

According to Wikipedia (not the best source, but the best I have on hand) only about half of the world's nations recognize and "official" language. And of course of those, many have several official languages--not just one.

Many nations which you might think were in need of a clear national identity (either for themselves or from their neighbors) have chosen to have more than one official language. Afghanistan has Pashto and Dari. Iraq has Arabic and Kurdish. Israel has both Hebrew and Arabic. Finland has Finnish and Swedish. Bosnia has Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian. India has Hindi, English, and about 20 other official languages.

While authoritarian states prefer the one-language strategy(e.g. China, the old USSR...) democracies tend to view the enforcement of a single national language as a recipe for national division and ethnic isolation. More and more nations are adopting an inclusive language policy rather than an exclusive one. Canada, for example, has chosen bilingualism over monolingualism as its path to national unity. Boliva has chosen to honor its native heritage, rather than quash it, by having three languages: Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara. The EU has chosen to have 20 official languages (soon to be 23 in 2007) as its path to European unity.

And we are not a one-language nation. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 47 million Americans (18%) reported speaking a language other than English at home. That's the same percentage as those who lack health insurance--and would LTG say that number is insignificant?

The largest bloc is of course the 30 million (as of 2005) native Spanish speakers over age 5 (12%). By comparison, 22% of Canadians speak French as their mother tongue--and at current trends, we'll be there in fifty years. So if we're going to adopt English as an official language, why shouldn't we welcome Spanish as well?

Maybe USWest (who knows more of the politics of language) could comment on the use of multilingualism vs. monolingualism as a tool for national unity?

Anonymous said...

Well, I think I commented on this in the past. I think you pretty much sum it up well Dr.S. And you are correct that many nations don't bother to declare a national language.
On the issue of monolingual vs. multilingual: the policy you peruse and what you legislate are two different issues. And you don't need an "official" language to promote a language.

Having an official language does not mean you have a monolingual policy. And LTG is proof of that. He wants and official language, but still wants acceptance of other languages. The two are not mutually exclusive. European countries all have official languages, but none have a monolingual policy.

My take is that you don't need legislation. Our de-facto language policy in this country is that English is the official language of the United States. Our schools and government institutions are all run in English. Our founding documents are all written in English. This is all it takes for a language to be "official". This isn't going to change in the absence of legislation. In fact, LTG, I would argue that much of what you want to happen, free English classes, mandates about the language of the classroom, is happening. So I don't see any need for an "official official" language declaration. I repeat that from a policy perspective, English is already the official language.

I would also argue that the fact that we don't have a national language is indeed a keystone of our democracy and more importantly, our heritage and identity as a nation. People choose English because they choose America, not because they are forced to by law. And one of the interesting sides of language policy is the issue of status. We in this country gauge your assimilation into our society by your capacity to speak the language. And we do it more than we think. In most cases, the argument against illegal immigrants, and the legal immigrants for that matter, is that they don’t' bother to learn the language. So are you saying that if they are illegal, they can stay if they learn English? So I think the language issue is a smoke screen really.

Nations that adopt monolingual policies are nations that feel themselves under threat and that feel themselves divided. Monolingual policies are aimed at trying to mandate unity. But unity by its very nature cannot be mandated. From the policy perspective, language is a highly political issue in all countries because it defines how inclusive or exclusive a nation is and because it gets wrapped up in issues of human rights, freedom from discrimination and oppression which then lead to economic oppression and so on. When you close off people from their language, you are controlling and oppressing those people. By trying to force them into the "fold" you close them off from the very benefits of being part of the fold and forbid any contribution they may make to larger society. And there are dozens of case studies in the literature to support this. In general, the literature on language policy is in agreement that a monolingual policy is harmful to national unity. It breeds resentment, anger, and hostility within a society and, most importantly, it creates and environment of discrimination. The ramifications of a monolingual policy are negative according to everything I have read and I tend to agree.

Let's give a couple of examples. Turkey comes to mind. In a drive to join the EU, it began allowing Kurdish in schools after years of barring it. Immediately its relationship with Kurds began to improve because it was seen a recognizing Kurdish rights to exist and be respected as a group within Turkey. Now, Turkey is veering toward opposition to the EU and suddenly they want to end the bilingual policy. Another example is Greece. As part of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, Imvros and Tenedos, two small islands in Northern Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, were to be handed over to Turkey. However, those islands are populated by Greeks. As a condition of the hand over, Turkey promised to (article 14 and articles 37-44 section 3) respect a special administrative status of the islands that guaranteed protection of life and property, free use of the native language (Greek), religious freedom, and generally all human rights. These were considered "Basic Laws", which, Turkey agreed it would not abrogate through any other law, regulation or administrative act. In 1964, Turkey confiscated schools buildings and barred the teaching of Greek, even at home, and the Greek children were forced to learn only Turkish (violation of articles 38, 39, 40, 41 and 42 or the treaty). I don't need to tell you the rest of the story about the divisions this has created for people.

Likewise, Turkish minorities in Greece are often unable to send their children to bilingual schools because none are available to them in their districts. The examples of such things are legion. It is a case where, even when bilingual education is available, it isn't accessible.

A major concern among linguists is the loss of many languages and with them, the loss of knowledge, culture, and history of those who speak the languages. In this country, the loss of Native American languages has been widely documented. And this loss of heritage has long been recognized as one to the factors contributing to the poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse among Native Americans. Language is the primary form of communication for people, be it spoken or written. Divorcing people from that language isolates them and makes them feel that they have nothing of value to contribute to the larger society. This is why language rights are human rights.

Bottom line from the policy perspective, no one will care what the legislation says so long as their right to use their langauges are respected and protected. I however, am opposed, because I like the idea that ideas hold us together as a nation, not langauge. I live the fact that we are nation that no matter what langauge you speak, what food you eat, what clothes you wear, you value our democratic ideals and you aren't afraid to be here. 

// posted by USWest

Dr. Strangelove said...

Interesting stuff re Turkey, USWest. The point about vanishing Native American languages is also interesting. Imagine if we made Navajo an official language of the United States (there are approximately 180,000 native speakers in 2000--about as many as all other North American native language speakers put together)... what could be more symbolic of our desire to respect their culture?

I agree that having English as our official languageis not the same as having an English-only policy. But when you water it down to the point where LTG is willing to conduct official business in "as many languages as necessary," then it seems to me that designating a single language as our "official language" amounts to nothing more than symbolism.

And so long as it's merely a question of symbolism, USWest is of course correct that it doesn't really matter much. But I prefer USWest's symbolism to LTG's. I prefer the symbol of all-languages-are-equal, that we are a nation where what we say matters more than how we say it.

Incidentally, when I was in elementary school in Tucson, Spanish classes were required. I think the economic arguments in this nation--especially in the border states--favor learning both English and Spanish. Incidentally, there's a good map from the 2000 census showing the percentage non-English speaking population of the U.S. In the Southwest, especially along the Rio Grande, it is upwards of 60% in many counties. New Mexico has 37% non-native speakers, including half the Najavo (4% of New Mexico).

Anonymous said...

I guess here's the question: Do you want a generation of Latinos to grow up who refuse to learn English and believe that being asked to learn English is an offense? Do you want our legislature to have representatives who insist on speaking only in Spanish? Don't just dismiss the issue by saying "that's silly, everyone wants to learn English for practical reasons." That's true today, but not if we adopt a national view that there's nothing special about English. That's what a national language is about. Imagine if we started having to print the laws in two or three official languages, and have judges write in their own languages. What if a judge insists on speaking Chinese in the courtroom, and demands that English speakers get interpreters? I find the lovey-dovey symbolism that "all languages are equal" very pretty, but totally glossing over the real problems of not having a language with official status.

Politically, the public will support lots of interpreters and so forth as long as there is some legislation that ensures the permanent place of English as the primary language.

I speak several languages, including Spanish, and think it is an important skill. That's not relevant here. 

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

LTG: I think the real question is, "What's wrong with the way things are now?" We have none of the silly problems you mentioned... and yet we have no official language. Amazing!

So why do people want to make English our "national language"? When you cut away the cutesy fluff about "national heritage", the real reason behind the current push is that some people don't like, perhaps even fear, the spread of Hispanic culture into the United States--of which the increasing prominence of the Spanish language, on billboards and TV etc., is the most obvious sign.

That's what this is really about... and everyone knows it. That's why the millions of people marching in support of immigrants was so important: the Hispanic community is finding their pride, as Hispanics and as Americans. People said the same stuff about the Chinese and the Poles--even the Irish--worrying they would get so numerous that they would refuse to assimilate. They passed laws to stop it. And back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were immigrating at a faster rate than now. But it all worked out.

Let me be clear: I am not accusing you, LTG, of buying into that fearful mentality. I know you better than that! But this issue isn't about Latinos refusing to learn English--it's about the U.S. Senate putting up the modern equivalent of a sign that reads, "Hispanics Need Not Apply." With all the fearmongering about illegal immigration and now sending troops to the border, the Republicans are pandering to that old, discredited attitude toward an "invading" culture.

Assimilation is not entirely a one-way street. Like it or not, America is being and will be changed by the flood of Hispanic immigrants, just as Boston was changed by the Irish, San Francisco by the Chinese, New York by the Puerto Ricans, etc. English is not going to lose its privileged status in the forseeable future. And if forces are indeed gradually pushing us toward multilingualism--which I am not certain of, by the way--no amount of pompous declarations of official status will stop it.

But such declarations can be a slap in the face. And that's what this is about, to me.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to share this . It is MLA's langauge map as well as other interesting information about langauge in the US. It may be similar to the link that Dr. S linked to. This map is interactive, so you can pick several langauges. It is very interesting.

I understand your concern LTG, I just don't agree. And I don't forsee the types of situations that you describe such as judges wanting to write decision in Chinese. I'll tell you why: it isn't possible. It isn't possible because for all its sophistication, Chinese does not have terms for many American legal concepts. Several years ago I remember a news story where the Chinese delegation was having a very hard time dealing with a treaty proposed by the US in the UN simply because it contained so many "Americanisms" that had no equivilent in Chinese. The same is true of other langauges, except perhaps the European langauges, and I don't think they are planning a massive take over of English anytime soon.

California has delcared English as its official langauge, as has several other states. But I still have to hit "2" for English when I call my credit card company. Do we need a national law? I think not.

I would also point out that in the EU, their laws are published in all member langauges. It is a budget burden and everyone complains. So they have refined their poilicies. For major directives and resolutions, they publish in all member langauges. For midgrade meetings of ministers, they provide translations in the official langauges of the EU (English, French, German). For lower level meetings, they usually only do French and English. It seems to work. There isn't any anarchy in Europe. That said, LTG is correct that the level of "unity" in Europe isn't all that high. But that isn't because of the langauge issue.

Dr. S, I didn't say all-langauges-are-equal. I said that there has to be room for all languages to have a presence. In language policy circles, there is widespread acceptance that some langauges will carry more status than others. The idea, however, is that minority langauges should be respected and people should have the opportunity and the motivation to use not only the majority langauge but the minority langauges as well.

I would like to address this in more detail, which I will in an upcoming post. For now, I have to go.


// posted by USWest

Anonymous said...

Great map. Fun toy!

I think that American should reverse 150 years of Anglo oppression and establish a national language in keeping with the true ethnic plurality of the majority of US states since the early 1800s....GERMAN! Just kidding.

I say let market forces take care of this problem (they already are). We should only be concerned when the second generation of Korean-Americans learns Spanish but not English. So far that's not going on.  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

RBR's "let market forces take care of this problem" is fine, but not settling to people who think that the spread of Spanish language TV and radio is the thin end of the wedge leading to the parade of horribles I listed in a previous comment.

What's wrong now? Well, nothing is wrong now in one sense. In another sense, we have a massive change. Tens of millions of legal immigrants from Latin America. More than ten million illegally here. What if the next generation doesn't want to assimilate - what if they want US to assimilate to THEM? That's the fear. And there are plenty of people preaching the idea that you don't ever have to learn English to be 100% American, and that there is no reason other than "market forces" to teach one's children English.

I think it's wrong, Dr.S., to say that all this is anti-Latino hysteria. Every wave of immigration creates the same fears.
Also, because of the proximity of Mexico, there is no ocean to persuade this set of immigrants to assimilate after a generation or two. Previous waves of immigrations did not produce the enormous size of non-assimilated population we see today. So it is unique. 

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

USWest reminds me she did not say all languages should be treated equally. My mistake. Her restatement is also a better expression of what I support. Along with RbR's "market forces" in culture.

I do not believe history supports LTG's assertion that this wave of immigration is markedly different from others. Of the 18% of the U.S. that does not speak English at home, half of them still report speaking English "very well." Assimilation continues. (And as for non-assimilation, hey... have you been to Chinatown lately?)

Anonymous said...

"but not settling to people who think that the spread of Spanish language TV and radio is the thin end of the wedge leading to the parade of horribles I listed in a previous comment."

My concern with this approach is that we should not allow the most paranoid among us define good policy.

As for past waves of own family (on one side) migrated here from Denmark in the late 19th century. They initially settled in parts of the midwest where Scandinavians and Germans dominated. Majorities of the populations of entire states did not speak English at home and in some towns, English was a second language for generations. My own great-grand father attended a Seminary in Nebraska where the language of instruction was Danish. He gave sermons in Danish (in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Washington) until the 1930s (and even then he would lead small meetings in Danish for the old timers until his death in the 1970s). My grandmother was born in Nebraska but did not speak any English at all until she went to school and had to find a common language with the children of German immigrants.

The wave of migration lasted for decades. Relative to the existing population fo the USA, the numbers were HUGE! The immigrants settled in geographically concentrated communities that somewhat remote from the English speaking elites. Assimilation was delayed for decades (even generations). And yet, no one would doubt that my family has assimilated. Indeed, my Grandmother speaks almost exclusively English now.

If we had been blogging in 1900 we might well have been discussing fears about the linguistic pollution being caused by Scandinavians in the Midwest and Italians, Poles and Russians in the eastern cities.

Mexico is proximate to the USA, true. But Mexicans represent a decreasing share of Spanish spaeking migrants and many Mexican-Americans have been here the longest and are most likely to speak English. I would suggest further that the Atlantic was no more a barier than are the thousands of square miles of desert along our southern border. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

I'd like to express my appreciation for the lively discussion.

Here's some links that are digestible, topical, and (I think) interesting:
Daily Kos diary 
more scholarly link cited by above

Of particular note is that the same points of argument seem to have come up again and again.

I hope this won't be taken as snarky: I'd like to ask a question about LTG's idiom: I only heard the phrase "thin end of the wedge" when I got here (England). Is this also in common usage in the US?

Regarding Dr.S's idea about Navajo as an official language, I think it's worth recalling that Navajo has already been used for critical official business of the US, by the Code Talkers of World War II. (According to this helpful link, Choctaw was used in WW I, also.)

Personally, I'm against making English the official language, symbolically or otherwise. I feel the need to mention that I'm part Welsh; that may or may not have a great bearing on my views toward language.  

// posted by Bob

Anonymous said...

I hear "thin edge of the wedge" whenever people feel the need to vary "camel's nose in the tent." Perhaps I read The Economist too much.

Interesting comment about Welsh. The Welsh fought long and hard to have Welsh recognized as an official language. Symbolism does matter. Why is it okay for France, Poland, Germany, or Norway (or Mexico) to have an official language, but not the USA? Is it really so racist to open to the country to the world (as so many other countries don't) with the sole caveat that one should learn English?

I guess this is just a very emotional issue, and since most of those opposed on this blog don't feel very strongly, that suggests a path. 

// posted by LTG

Anonymous said...

I was re-reading some of the comments here, and one thing that strikes me is that I no longer have much faith in anything, inlcuding the law. It has become too evident to me that having laws about things doesn't matter any more since you can just ignore most of them or pass new laws to abrrogate them. So go ahead, make an official langauge, and if having it codified makes you feel better, safer, etc. OK. But unless there is enforcement or some goal beind it, it won't mean a damned thing. That said, legislating based on "feelings" to me is part of what gets us into trouble in this country. It just feels good, so let's do it. That is not proper policy making and we all know it.

I am not intending to suggestion here that LTG is a "feeler", I know better than that. He's a rationally minded individual. It is just a general statement about the larger society. And for more on that, see my main post up top. 

// posted by USWest

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment about Welsh. The Welsh fought long and hard to have Welsh recognized as an official language. Symbolism does matter.

There's a vast difference between having Welsh recognized as an official language (in addition to English) and declaring English to be the official language. The Welsh language movement was fighting for the survival of a language being eradicated by the "official" language. In fact, Welsh was outlawed from 1536 until 1969.

I do not mean to compare Welsh in the UK to Spanish in the US, but to point out that attempts have been made in the past to assimilate cultures by enforcing a single official language, and suggest that my heritage in that conflict could be informing my opinion in this one.

Shame on you, LTG, for taking a point of ethnic pride for me and distorting it to fit your argument. The story of Welsh is a story of struggle against English as the official language, and equating the recognition of Welsh with establishing a single official language here is self-serving. 

// posted by Bob