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15.6.05

Linguistic Pluralism

Don Herzog wonders whether there might not be something to the English-only movement's demand for monolingualism:

Though linguists and philosophers fret about just how to put the point, language really is intimately wrapped up with culture, if not how people think or see the world. So requiring public schools to do all their teaching in English looks like an assault on ethnic communities and parents' autonomy. But it is true that children who can't speak good English will have a hard time of it in some job markets. And they'll be shut out from important arenas of political debate, too. I don't doubt that there are ugly nativist and racist reasons for rallying to Official English. But you have to be a lunatic to think that there are no plausible reasons on ProEnglish's side of the debate.


I agree that the government has a responsibility to ensure that its citizens have the opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to interact with each other. Given the dominance of English both in face-to-face speech and the media -- and, crucially, its status as the language of the politically, economically, and socially powerful -- that means providing effective and accessible English instruction for both children and adults. However, it also means supporting minority languages as far as is feasible -- for example, through effective and accessible Spanish instruction in areas such as the Southwest where there is a large Spanish-speaking community. It is also important that providing the opportunity to learn English does not turn into paternalistically requiring the use of English by those who would prefer to conduct their business in other languages.

Yet the English-only folks want to go farther than that. There seem to be three main components to the English-only agenda. One is the question of language immersion programs, which I think can be reduced to a pragmatic debate about what teaching method is most effective at providing children with the opportunity to learn a language. I don't claim any expertise on this issue.

Second is the demand that all government business be carried out solely in English. Often this is phrased as a question of government spending -- that the government is wasting money printing ballots in Tagalog and Navajo that could be better spent elsewhere (or returned to people through tax cuts). But in the grand scheme of things, the expense of translation is a small one. And it's justified by an important need -- that the government should reach out to and serve the people, rather than requiring the people to come to the government and play by its rules.

The third prong of the English-only agenda, which is supported by the "all government business in English" prong, is to get formal recognition of English as the nation's official language. It sends a message that "real Americans use English," turning an empirical coincidence regarding the linguistic composition of the citizenry into a constitutive part of the national identity. This is similar to the demands for nativity scenes on government property, as a statement that this is a Christian country that tolerates other religions rather than a country that happens to be made up of mostly Christians.

There is a reliance here on a strong insider-outsider divide. Rights are premised not on the fact that one is a human being whose interests are materially affected, but on earning membership in the ruling class. Certainly some such boundary is necessary. The question is about how it should be established -- as a hereditary system in which those who were members in the last round define the entry requirements for anyone else asking to be let in, or as an empirical matter in which we look at everyone as having a potentially equal claim to inclusion*?

English-only is an attempt at shoring up a hereditary system of citizenship (citizenship in both the formal and especially the substantive sense). It's a government that sets up criteria by which people may participate, and asks that they do the work of getting themselves up to code (though not necessarily without aid). Linguistic pluralism, on the other hand, demands that the government reach out to those whose interests give them a claim to participation. Rather than speakers of minority languages having to become "one of us," a pluralistic government redefines "us" in order to encompass minority language speakers on as equal a basis as is feasible.

*Compare, as a very rough analogy, the current Bishops of a church selecting their successors in accordance with their own views, versus a legislature that is re-created from scratch based on the will of the wider community.

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