Could a nation of immigrants be losing its common tongue?
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
May. 04, 2006

By JOHN AUSTIN, Star-Telegram Staff Writer

English may be on the tip of the world's tongue in trade, travel and diplomacy, but many Americans apparently fear that we're saying adios to it at home. The outraged blogs and stern presidential response after the release of a Spanish version of the national anthem last week dramatized how volatile the language issue has become against the backdrop of the debate on whether illegal immigrants should be granted legal status or deported.

"One of the things that's very important is ... that we not lose our national soul," said President Bush, who has spoken Spanish in public addresses. "I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English, and I think people who want to be a citizen ought to learn English and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English."

Experts say the talk about language is ultimately part of a larger discussion about race, power and what we want being American to mean.

"Language is standing in as a proxy for issues that we find difficult to discuss, said Keith Walters, a University of Texas at Austin linguistics professor. "Language becomes a symbolic battlefield.

"There're really much, much more complex debates going on. It's very hard to have those discussions. We know there's not a shared set of answers we have." James Crawford, a former Washington editor of Education Week who now writes on language and education policy, said the language issue has a history of popping up.

"It's closely related to attitudes about immigration," said Crawford. "It is a cyclical thing."

Countless cultural, historic and political institutions, including the Constitution, television, sports, shopping at Target, education and driving on the right-hand side of the road, mold Americans' identity.

But we are a nation of immigrants, not united by a gene pool, income equality, monarchy or state church. "Because Americans don't automatically share a lot of other things," Walters said, "this probably encourages some Americans to see language as one thing we should share."

The online political forum credits former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan as advocating "a national campaign of assimilation to teach newly adopted Americans our culture, history, traditions and language." About 37 million foreign-born people live in the U.S. Citing an estimate from the March 2005 Current Population Survey, the Pew Hispanic Center recently reported that undocumented immigrants total more than 11 million people, or 30 percent of the foreign-born U.S. population.

Multicultural roots
America has never spoken a single language. There were significant groups of non-English speakers even during colonial times.

"From the beginning we've been multicultural," said Walters.

"That doesn't mean we've got it right. It means we've had some experience."

Census data show that in 1890, America had triple the percentage of non-English speakers as it did in 2000. The 1890 Census also found cities with substantial non-English-speaking populations, such as Milwaukee, where 20 percent of residents spoke no English, Crawford said.

According to the 1900 Census, about 600,000 American elementary school students were receiving part or all of their instruction in German, Crawford said.

That census found that 35 percent of Chicago's population was foreign-born. In 1910 it was 36 percent, and in 1920 it was 30 percent.

World War I and America's anti-German hysteria prompted legislation that banned the language in schools and other public places. By 1922, less than 1 percent of American schoolchildren received instruction in German, Crawford said.

Language, the experts point out, is neither a guarantee of unity nor a wedge that inevitably splits nations.

China and Taiwan have one language but remain politically divided.

Ditto for North and South Korea.

Switzerland, on the other hand, has become one of the world's most stable democracies, despite having four official languages: French, German, Italian and Romansch.

Canada is bilingual, and India, the world's most populous democracy, has two official languages, Hindi and English.

"We can point to places like Ireland where sharing a language hasn't kept people from killing each other," said Walters.

Crawford noted that both sides in America's Civil War spoke English.

"It's a debatable point to me that having a common language solves all your problems," said Crawford. "Having both sides speaking the same language didn't have much impact."

A thriving language
Fears that Americans will at some point trade English for Spanish are unfounded, according to Werner Sollors, a Harvard English professor who specializes in minority writing in the United States.

"I think with the growth of American pop culture, the idea that America is the graveyard of foreign languages is truer than ever," said Sollors.

Sollors agreed with Crawford that immigrants are not only learning English: They're now becoming English speakers in two generations instead of three.

"It's nonsense, the idea that English is threatened," said Crawford. The proximity of Mexico makes it possible for some immigrants and their children to have what Walters calls a "transnational identity," with ties to both countries.

But our pervasive pop culture accelerates the process of inducing immigrants to speak English.

"You could live in rural Missouri for four or five generations without having a real need to speak English," before the days of radio, telephones and TV, said Crawford. "That's just not possible now.

"The children of immigrants are very rapidly losing the ability to speak their parents' and grandparents' language," Crawford said. "There's very little resistance to English from newcomers." The economy also provides an incentive. "There's a payoff," Crawford said.

Even in heavily Hispanic cities such as Miami, young people who grow up in Spanish-speaking homes speak English to differentiate themselves from more recent arrivals, Sollors said.

America isn't the only nation debating what to do about immigrants and the language.

Australia is considering an English test for immigrants.

"Given increasing globalization," said Walters, "everyplace is dealing with questions of immigration."

That doesn't always come easy in a place like America, where two oceans kept much of the world at bay while settlers erased most of the original inhabitants and their languages.

"Americans aren't used to dealing with most kinds of differences," said Walters. "That's just part of our legacy. It was set up for us."

Yet while we debate immigration and the languages that immigrants bring to America, a few things should be kept in mind, Walters said.

"All debates about immigration are about purity," said Walters. "It's very hard to keep discussions from having racial or racist overtones.

"It's hard for us to talk about this. It is much easier for us to have fights about what language the national anthem should be sung in."