In the U.S. and Europe Tensions Between a National and Minority Languages
NY Times
May 29, 2006


After the Senate's recent vote to make English the "national language" of the United States, an avalanche of accusations accumulated, suggesting much illiberal villainy. The Senate's enshrinement of English in the immigration bill it approved last week was cautious: the proposed law says the government must " preserve and enhance the role of English," but it leaves intact federal laws requiring multilingual materials and services. Yet some critics immediately attacked it as xenophobic, even racist.

Should English be made the "official" language of the United States?

But perhaps, to put things in a broader perspective, it may help to step outside the United States' debates about English and look at a situation that is its precise opposite. A few months ago officials from the European Union scrutinized Germany's compliance with the 1992 European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, a counterweight to the very idea of official languages. It stresses what it calls "the value of interculturalism and multilingualism." It demands that treaty participants "promote regional or minority languages," encourage their use, create political links among their speakers, guarantee access to them in criminal and civil proceedings, and encourage their presence in television and radio.

Procedures were established for monitoring compliance with this project.

In March a European Union "committee of experts," as they are officially called, issued a 168-page report (available at after examining Germany's compliance. The gist of it is that in Germany "more determined measures are needed to encourage the use of regional or minority languages in economic and social life." Germany is, for example, asked to "remedy the existing shortage of Lower Sorbian-speaking teachers," to "develop and implement the educational model for North Frisian proposed by the North Frisian speakers" and "reverse the decline in study and research opportunities for Low German, Sater Frisian and Lower Sorbian." Germany's response in a 50-page appendix did little to mitigate the righteous sentiments of the final verdict.

This is a bizarre situation: treating languages as possessing inalienable rights and entitlements, meriting artificial life-support seemingly in inverse proportion to their importance. The charter justifies this explicit promotion of these languages as a means of preserving cultural legacy but also intends it to be a form of recompense, asserting that these minority languages are victims of "unjustified distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference" once intended to "discourage or endanger" them.

On a larger scale, this view was elaborated upon in 1996 in a Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, in which the International PEN club and other organizations, supported by Unesco, affirmed principles like "Everyone has the right to carry out all activities in the public sphere in his/her language."

There are, to be sure, reasons for the accusatory tone of these reports. Minority languages suffered grievous indignities as nation-states came into being. In France, for example, where French has been the official state language since 1539, there were periods when even other native languages, like Breton, were barred from the classroom and treated as obstacles to the nation's unity.

The French language is so central to the idea of France that its status is affirmed in its constitution, which is one reason France signed the European Union minority-language charter but never ratified it. Other nations did the same, selecting remedies they could comfortably endorse. (Twenty nations have ratified the charter; 12 others have signed without ratification.) They know what is at stake. So does the European Union: it seeks to weaken the idea of the nation-state.

But many of these debates are only incidentally about immigration. Low German is not being championed to support immigrant rights; even the challenges posed by Europe's radical Islamic immigrants have little to do with language. Instead, as the European Union language charter shows, linguistic issues grow out of a perception of some social and historical wrong and skepticism about the power of the nation-state.

To a certain extent the issues are very different here, where claims have been made not in the name of linguistic rights but identity rights. The group speaking the minority language feels subject to "unjustified distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference." Here too, though, this sense of a wronged past has helped spur linguistic change, including bilingual education (which has proved to be far from the promised panacea). There has also been pressure to expand language education here, not to right historical wrongs, but because the United States isn't considered multilingual enough.

The challenge to the state has also been different here. In the United States national identity has only accidentally been tied to the dominance of English.

Slavery and the American Indian past aside, this is a nation of immigrants. While immigration did spur waves of resentment and opposition, the United States offers a profound example of successful integration of immigrant populations, aided by the traditional immigrant desire to adopt the dominant language rather than to insist on alternatives. It is only in the last 30 years, with the onset of identity politics, that there were efforts to promote an opposing view.

But it is ideology, not immigration, that is the deciding issue. In March a poll by Zogby International of 1,007 Americans found that the establishment of English as the "official language" has widespread support among diverse groups, including 71 percent of Hispanics and 82 percent of Democrats. Another Zogby poll, in 2005, found more than 80 percent of first-and second-generation Americans supporting the idea.

So the effort is not a matter of xenophobia. It is an attempt to take a position in the vexing debate over the future of the nation-state: What are the forces that hold it together, and what are the forces that threaten to split it apart? What sacrifices are asked for the sake of unity? And what sacrifices should not be asked for that purpose? These are the same issues that are causing citizenship tests to be scrutinized throughout the Western world. The coherence of the state can no longer be taken for granted when divisions within it are so enthusiastically endorsed; the European Union language charter reflects a problem, not a solution.

But establishment of a national language doesn't provide the solution either. A shared language doesn't promise unity any more than multiple languages promise disunity. France, with perhaps the longest and most established national language, is facing some of the most serious multicultural schisms. The United States has had one of the world's most successful experiences with immigration without having had a national language. Many states have more than one official language without suffering ill effects; others boast multiple languages that reflect persistent schisms, as in Cyprus (between Turkish and Greek), and Sri Lanka (between Tamil and Sinhala).

The outrage over the Senate vote is out of proportion.

Meanwhile important discussions about the nation-state, and how it might evolve in the midst of diversity, are barely heard in the din, almost drowned out by the shouting between the nation-state and Babel's growing tower.