Issue #4, Spring 2007

E Pluribus Unum

The democratic case for bilingualism.

The United States is in the midst of a demographic reordering, brought on by levels of immigration unprecedented in American history. The numbers are staggering: Between 1971 and 2000, nearly 20 million immigrants came to the United States legally–almost two million more people than entered between 1891 and 1920, the last major period of migration-fueled transformation. Of course, as a percentage of total U.S. population, immigrants today represent a smaller cohort than at the turn of the twentieth century, but the acceleration of migration in recent years has been dramatic nevertheless. Between 2000 and 2005, approximately 7.9 million immigrants arrived here–the largest number in any single five-year period in American history. By 2002, more than 20 percent of the population of the United States consisted of immigrants or their children. Add to these totals the nearly 12 million unauthorized immigrants estimated to be present, and it’s no wonder that the immigration debate has roiled the country.

As the number of immigrants entering the United States has reached historic highs, a variety of familiar anti-immigration arguments have surfaced in the public debate: National security is at risk, public safety is being undermined, and American workers are losing their jobs. But the trope most often invoked–across historical periods and the political spectrum–is of immigration as a cultural threat. In this view, demographic trends threaten to dilute the common national culture that sustains the unity essential to our self-government. A nation in which salsa replaces ketchup as the nation’s favorite condiment, and in which public parks are filled with pick-up soccer games as opposed to basketball or baseball, is a nation changed. More than that, some fear, it is a fractured nation in which democracy becomes increasingly difficult to sustain.

Throughout American history, the cultural bogeyman has taken various forms. It has been defined by race, as with the Chinese, who were subjected to draconian exclusion laws in the late nineteenth century and declared inherently inassimilable by Justice John Marshall Harlan, just as he was condemning racial segregation in his famous Plessy v. Ferguson dissent. It has been given religious form, with warning bells sounded about criminal Italian Catholics and venal Eastern European Jews–the two groups that dominated the last period of large-scale immigration. And the arrival of new ethnic groups has been linked by opponents to grave political and national security threats, leading to the swift disappearance, in the wake of World War I and Theodore Roosevelt’s Americanization campaigns, of formerly robust German-language schools, newspapers, and clubs, and the deportation of many Eastern European “radicals” to Russia during the same period, for fear of their Bolshevism.

Today, these prejudices seem almost quaint. Chinese-, Italian-, German- and Jewish-Americans have achieved success at all levels of American society. Racial and religious pluralism, in particular, are widely accepted as fixed (though often anxiety-producing) features of American society; relatively few claim our survival as a nation depends on racial or religious uniformity. But the impulse toward homogeneity and the suspicion of foreigners have not disappeared, they have just taken another form. At least as they are expressed in polite company, these tendencies are most often articulated in linguistic terms. Public figures, opinion writers, and lawmakers at all levels venerate the English language as the glue that provides cohesion in an otherwise impossibly diverse immigrant society–what makes e pluribus unum possible.

Consider the English-only ordinances that have been passed by a number of states and municipalities in the last year. They declare English to be our common language and emphasize that universal use of English “removes barriers of misunderstanding” and “helps to enable the full economic and civic participation” of all citizens, justifying government efforts “promoting, preserving, and strengthening” the English language. During last year’s Senate debate over whether to adopt a national language, James Inhofe of Oklahoma worried that by taking in “great numbers of immigrants,” we are “overwhelming the assimilation process and creating ” linguistic ghettoes.” Lamar Alexander of Tennessee declared that nothing could be more important when debating immigration reform than “talking about our common language,” which enables us to “take our magnificent diversity and make it even more magnificent.” And despite his skepticism of the Republican-sponsored bill, Ken Salazar of Colorado, one of only two Latinos serving in the upper chamber, offered his own amendment, supported by large numbers of Democrats, declaring that “English is the common and unifying language of the United States that helps provide unity for the people of the United States.”

Though the bulk of today’s immigrants come from multilingual corners of Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean, the language that motivates policymakers’ concerns is Spanish–a language simultaneously associated with immigration-fueled transformation and an old history of manifest destiny, imperial adventure, and civil rights struggles. Indeed, as commentators have observed, the Spanish language is to the United States today what the Islamic veil is to Western Europe–the potent symbol around which the assimilation debate turns. In both societies, the symbol is described as an impediment to mutual understanding, and in both societies, the symbol’s prevalence, whether real or perceived, challenges the cultural security of the general population.

This perception of a new cultural threat in the United States is compounded by the fact that immigrants are increasingly settling not just in border states or big cities but throughout the South and Midwest. In towns across the country, residents are interacting with Latin American immigrants for the very first time. Communities unaccustomed to incorporating immigrants now hear foreign languages in public spaces, see Spanish signs on storefronts, and grapple with the challenge of a sizable non-English-speaking student body in the public schools.

This new challenge is one of the factors that has prompted state legislatures and local governments in the last few years to debate and adopt a slew of measures designed to control immigrants and those with whom immigrants associate. Most of the “illegal immigration relief” acts passed by cities and towns, as well as most laws passed by states, explicitly address illegal immigration. But it would be na‘ve to assume that the problem of illegality is the only force driving this phenomenon. Many immigration-control measures have been accompanied by official declarations that limit the government’s authority to operate in languages other than English–measures that affect U.S. citizens, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants alike. In some corners, the defense of English has been taken to extremes. In one Georgia town, for example, a local minister was prosecuted in 1999 under an English-only sign ordinance for advertising his church services to the community in Spanish. A Chicago public school gained notoriety last December for requiring students to sign a pledge vowing not to speak Spanish while on school grounds. And in Tennessee in 2005, a child-court judge made headlines for ordering a Spanish-speaking mother involved in neglect and custody disputes to take English classes or risk losing her children.

But this fixation on language as the marker of assimilation and the source of unity, while understandable, is misplaced. The fact that immigrants speak their mother tongues does not mean that they are not integrating in profound ways–that immigrants aren’t contributing to the economy, investing in their neighborhoods, or becoming involved in politics. On the flip side, complete linguistic assimilation does not necessarily indicate that immigrants have become meaningfully integrated: Consider the linguistically assimilated but otherwise disaffected second generation of Muslim immigrants in Europe.

In fact, the drive toward linguistic homogeneity makes the absorption of immigrants more difficult and saps American democracy of vitality. Bilingual individuals, institutions with multilingual capacity, and even a self-conception as an English-dominant but linguistically diverse nation are indispensable to a successful, self-governing American polity, particularly in an increasingly interdependent world. Though it may seem counterintuitive, bilingualism promotes the integration of immigrants and ethnic minorities, enables effective citizen participation, and strengthens our democracy and nation. In other words, we should be promoting bilingualism, not fighting it.

American Immigration: Three Schools of Thought

Currently, almost no one argues the democratic case for bilingualism. Instead, three schools of thought dominate the debate: conservative or “thick” assimilationism, multiculturalism, and liberal assimilationism. With political scientist Samuel Huntington as their academic standard-bearer, conservative assimilationists like George Will and Newt Gingrich, who have called for an end to bilingual ballots, and the likes of Senators Inhofe and Alexander, who along with Lindsay Graham of South Carolina co-sponsored the national language bill, warn that today’s immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, resist learning English. This resistance demonstrates an unwillingness to participate in American life and threatens the perpetuation of important public values. As Huntington put it, “[t]here is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” To conservative assimilationists, public services translated into languages other than English seem like a costly crutch; bilingual ballots appear to threaten a political community that depends on mutual understanding; and bilingual education looks destined to create ethnic ghettoes.

On the other hand, multiculturalists weigh in by contesting the notion of assimilation altogether. As Nathan Glazer has explained in his work on multiculturalism, the “melting pot” has lost its universal appeal in multicultural circles, because the idea of assimilation “suggests forced conformity,” stands “opposed to the reality of individual and group difference,” and fails to recognize and celebrate those differences. Because of its association with historical practices of coercion and domination, the rhetoric of assimilation is presumptively suspect to the multiculturalist.

Finally, liberal assimilationists, who have responded to Huntington in the pages of the American Prospect and the New York Review of Books, adopt a posture of empirically supported avoidance, diffusing the conservative critique by emphasizing that Latin American immigrants are assimilating according to the standard “three-generation” pattern. Virtually no one in the so-called third generation, the rebuttal goes, speaks the language of his or her grandparents. Liberal assimilationists draw support from the latest sociological research, such as a recent study in which social scientists Rubén Rumbaut, Douglas Massey, and Frank Bean describe the United States as a “graveyard for languages” and document that Spanish-language usage readily disappears across generations, even in areas of Latino concentration.

Each of these positions contains important insights. Conservative assimilationists are correct in observing that the English language runs as a unifying thread through a deeply diverse population, and immigrant advancement does depend heavily on knowledge of English. But, as the liberal assimilationists point out, this insight is hardly lost on immigrants themselves, who fill waiting lists for oversubscribed English-as-a-second-language classes. And the core of the multiculturalists’ position remains compelling–ethnic subcultures not only give the life of the individual added meaning, but they also create cohesive local communities and represent influential and valuable dimensions of American history and culture. But, while advocates for these three schools of thought often find themselves at odds, these positions can in fact be bridged if we leave the Ivory Tower and see how the language issue actually plays out on the ground.

The New Multilingual Reality

Whether lawmakers succeed in passing comprehensive immigration reform, we can expect continued large-scale migration, particularly from Latin America and Asia. As sociologists Mary Waters and TomA¡s Jiménez have shown, one of the novelties of the current wave of immigration is the way in which ongoing flows of migration will replenish immigrant communities for the foreseeable future. This replenishment means that linguistic diversity will remain a demographic reality, even as the children and grandchildren of immigrants become native and exclusive English-speakers. Thus, based on the 2000 census, we can project that the majority of people in the United States, by 2044, will speak a language other than English. And some researchers speculate that English-Spanish bilingualism may persist more strongly in the third generation than in the past, in part because of the replenishment Waters and Jiménez document, and in part because geographic proximity and technological advancements make connections with Latin America relatively easy to sustain. America’s linguistic profile, therefore, will continue to consist of a “mutability continuum,” or of complex speech communities made up of non-English-speakers, individuals in the process of learning English, bilinguals, and monolingual English-speakers with connections of varying intensity to their fellow ethnics. No amount of rhetoric about the importance of linguistic commonality will dislodge the reality that the non-English-speaking immigrant and his bilingual descendants will continue to be significant parts of American society.

To the conservative assimilationist, this linguistic diversity means that we are in danger of being unable to communicate with one another. But that assumes that civic engagement involves one simultaneous national conversation–with knowledge of English as the prerequisite for joining. But our public conversations are far more varied than this model admits. Public dialogue consists of innumerable conversations in multiple media and in any number of languages. In fact, genuine dialogue depends on this variety of conversations. Only a small number of voices actually can be heard and then expressed by the national media. Subsidiary media, such as the local and ethnic press and the blogosphere, which inevitably target particular social groups, arise to give voice to the rest of us. In a country that will continue to be linguistically diverse, no matter how long or high a wall we build along our borders, multilingual dialogue will continue to be essential to national debate. Conservatives may not like it, but it’s the reality we face.

The immigration reform debate that culminated in nationwide demonstrations in May 2006 provides a case in point. It was as close to a national debate as one could imagine, but it had a wide variety of focal points–from President George Bush’s first major speech on the subject in 2004 to the machinations on Capitol Hill, the public discourse filtered through mainstream media, debates in local communities covered by local press, and the organizing efforts within immigrant communities. For a truly national conversation on the important matter of immigration reform to have occurred, all of these stakeholders, including immigrants themselves, had to be involved. The only way universal participation in this debate could be ensured was through the mobilization of multilingual resources in the form of the English- and Spanish-language media, bilingual organizers, and members of the general public and the political classes capable of understanding the multiple strands of the dialogue.

Issue #4, Spring 2007
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The author totally ignores a major complaint about the increasing use of Spanish in the U.S.: that it reflects the large number of ILLEGAL aliens in this country, who are functionally illiterate in not only English but their own languages. THAT is the concern--that Spanish is the language of people whose culture does not understand or respect us and our laws. Furthermore, were Spanish-speaking immigrants and their supporters truly concerned about learning English, THEY would be offering English-language classes rather than demanding that they be funded out of the public purse. The Church, for example, is very good at calling for "social justice" for immigrants but is less quick to put its money where its mouth is.

Apr 23, 2007, 5:17 PM
What? This is about the importance of bilingualism:

This article had nothing to do with Illegals, but then again, you really don't grasp the debate anyway, so I will save my breath. I am glad that you only posses the ability to be ignorant in only one language.

Jun 5, 2007, 10:21 PM

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