The Illusion of the Definite & Invasive ‘Other’

seven lies that inform the push for an english-only united states

Is the United States an “English-speaking nation”, or a place where all cultures are welcome to converge, mix and evolve? To answer this question, we must consider that there is a natural human tendency to fear what is perceived as the definite and invasive “other”, that which is different and which we feel can be categorized in a way that fits our worries.

The human space is fluid, adaptable, sensitive to evolving circumstance. This is why democracy is the only legitimate form of government. The identity of groups, or for that matter of individuals is not implacable, nor is it absolutely relative. It follows the vicissitudes of the human health and mind, and requires sincere dialogue with the other in order to reach its fullest potential. The push to establish a single national language can only be sustained on the basis of a number of false premises.

We will explore seven such lies and misperceptions here, all of a particular sort, having to do with a way of rationalizing one’s aversion to difference or to change. And, in each case, it is fairly easy to illustrate how the lie works against the interests of both a democratic society and American tradition itself.

1. The first key false premise is that there is an irrevocable danger to one’s identity, one’s security, one’s community and the integrity of one’s culture, if confronted with difference, if (to use the logic of the open market) one is forced to compete in the realm of ideas.

This is not only patently untrue (as will be shown in the enumeration of the other misperceptions that provoke xenophobia), but it would require that we reject both American history and the values of a democratic society. American society has never been uniform, has always had to find ways to bring harmony among disparate groups, and from the Constitution forward has sought to defend the rights and the role of minorities in society.

During the Second World War, the most decorated division was comprised largely of Japanese Americans from the Pacific Northwest and Native American tribes have lent soldiers, code-readers and specialists to all the wars since then. E pluribus unum, the national motto, meaning ‘of the many: one’, has long been interpreted not as a call to flatten and evacuate the richness of an immigrant and pioneer culture, but to harness it, to make a more vibrant and adaptable continent-wide market, rich in ideas, abilities, distinctive methods and innovations.

2. The second basic untruth to examine is that government sanction of a national language leads to greater unity and a stronger uniform sense of national identity.

First, it’s worth referencing the brief glimpse of American history above and the words of great leaders who defended the idea of a potent national character, stemming from the global origins of the US population, to see that this is not even the goal of American society. But more importantly, there are clear examples that show that imposed uniformity does not bring a healthy sense of national identity, but can in fact create and exacerbate divisions in society.

France has a national one-culture policy that proclaims French the national language and requires that immigrants assimilate seamlessly into that one culture, leaving behind the trappings and traditions of their homelands. Children are forbidden from wearing culturally specific clothing in schools, and the 31 other languages indigenous to France are simply ignored by the government as a matter of cultural policy. Foreign languages spoken widely in people’s homes, like Arabic, Berber, Lao and Vietnamese, are relegated to non-French status and communities that maintain close ties to their family culture often find themselves bunched into ethnic ghettoes, where many French citizens commonly identified as non-French due to their cultural background or race, are concentrated through several generations.

The result of this one-language policy has been constant and oppressive tension leading to the near total isolation of communities lacking the resources or the opportunity to integrate into the larger officially French culture, despite being French-born for one, two or three generations. The explosive tensions promoted by this policy, and reinforced by the tacit discrimination it appeared to permit, led eventually to the riots of November 2005, which began in largely multigenerational, “immigrant” ghettoes in the northern Paris suburbs and spread quickly to 20 such suburbs and eventually 70 cities across the country and into neighboring countries.

The French interior minister (now president of the Republic), Nicolas Sarkozy, further inflamed tensions by suggesting that the young men involved were by nature “scum” and that he would deport everyone who was accused of participation. Apparently ignoring the proportion of French citizens involved, his view seemed obscured by racial considerations. He further pledged a comprehensive purge of immigrants; the one-culture policy fueled this irrational xenophobia, directed at communities officially invited into French society during the post-WWII period of rebuilding.

So, two evident problems with this lie of a sole unifying language: the declaration of a single culture does not erase cultural diversity (for this reason Europe pressured Turkey to eventually recognize its Kurdish minority, which it had officially labeled an historical fiction), and in the case of Paris, most of the “immigrant” youths were French born. It is not the difference in culture that creates cross-cultural tension, but the refusal of the majority to accept that their nationality is not diminished or degraded by the presence of people who think and behave differently, but who also identify with that larger national identity.

3. A third major false premise of the English-only movement is the belief in some sort of past golden age in which English was the sole unifying language, spoken by all and to the exclusion of all others.

This is not only untrue —the gold rush of 1849 brought not only easterners to northern California, but also communities of adventurous emigrants from China and east Asia, as well as Chileans and Russians in signficant numbers— it is utterly ridiculous in its denial of historical reality.

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Of the more than 300 languages currently spoken in the United States, at least 154 are indigenous languages, which predate the arrival of European colonists five centuries ago. Of those native languages still spoken inside the territory of the United States, about half are endangered, 7 have only 1 fluent speaker, and 42 have 10 or fewer speakers.

It is not the multiplication of languages that is the problem, but the disappearance of vast amounts of linguistic culture and knowledge from American society. Immigrant languages have also played a role in making American society what it is. After decades of being treated as an unwanted ethnicity, Italian Americans, most often poor immigrants from southern Italy, or their descendants, in New York and other cities, speaking their own language, some even to this day, after several generations, introduced a new culinary culture into American society.

At the death of the New York restauranteur Delmonico in 1881, the exiled Cuban poet José Martí, writing in Spanish, noted the outpouring of popular affection for the man and his life’s work, specifically citing the gratitude expressed by many for his having introduced sauces, garnishes and ingredients that all agree enriched American culture and society. At the founding of the republic, English was deliberately chosen as the language of standard use in law and government, not as a means of establishing a national vernacular, but simply to provide continuity in law, as the entire legal tradition of the British colonies in North America had been drafted in English. There were even competing camps arguing that German or French should be used, to accentuate the break from England and because there were a large number of colonists who spoke those languages as their mother tongue. 

In fact, as of the 2000 US census, there were in the United States only 24,515,138 citizens of English ancestry (single or multiple ancestry included), while there were 42,885,162 citizens of German ancestry, 36,419,434 of African-American ancestry, 30,594,130 of Irish and/or Celtic ancestry, and 31,107,889 who were foreign born. English-language culture has been a leading feature of American society, throughout its history, and has been most prevalent in publishing (books, magazines, newspapers and government documents), but it has never had an exclusive dominion over the American mind, and it does not represent any primary ethnic origin for the non-indigenous United States, as a republic.

The United States is, as it has always been, and to its credit, the most linguistically diverse industrialized democracy in the world.

4. A particularly insidious lie at the root of the English-only movement is the fear of an “invasion” of Spanish speakers.

It is simply untrue that the Spanish-speaking population of the Americas could eclipse the English-speaking population of the United States and displace English as the unofficial lingua franca of the republic. There are an estimated 450 to 500 million Spanish speakers across the globe, 40 million of whom live in Spain and 40 million more of whom already reside in the US itself, most of them speaking English as well. Spanish is also spoken by millions of people in Europe, south Asia and Africa. The population of the US in 2000 was 281,421,906, according to the US census.

The Census Bureau by 2006 estimated that figure at 298,820,183. The total number of people the US Census Bureau reported living in Spanish-speaking Latin American countries (including Mexico and Puerto Rico) in 2006 is 309,631,738. So, unless every country in Latin America were emptied, there is no risk of a de facto overtaking of the English language in the US; nevermind the fact that there is no evidence of any hemispheric conspiracy to make the US a Spanish-speaking country. Ultimately, it is the failure of imagination in the way individuals form their own sense of identity that generates the fear, not so much of foreigners or of another language, but of having to compete with fellow citizens who know more than one language.

The English-only movement is pushing very deliberately to limit the richness, vitality and adaptability of American culture, as well as its ability to learn of and respond to international crises or national security issues. It is in this that the nation itself faces the most serious threat to the potency and resilience of its linguistic and democratic culture.

5. There is also the pernicious suggestion that people speaking other languages are not loyal Americans.

This is directly tied to the false projection of “American” as connoting “English-speaking” and “white”. What’s more, immigrants who have faced political hardship, economic depression, harsh journeys on foot or cramped in tiny enclosed spaces, violent smugglers and real mortal peril, all in hopes of reaching the promise of American society, tend to prize more passionately and more personally the freedoms and the rights afforded by American law than American-born citizens can normally imagine.

Throughout American history, from the Revolution, through the Civil War, into the World Wars and including the 2003 Iraq invasion, foreign-born US citizens and non-citizens have fought on behalf of the United States, risking their lives for a country whose ideals they believe in and to which they hope to one day belong.

6. The sixth lie we must examine, which gives comfort to those who oppose the United States’ brave history of cultural diversity, is that suspicion of something one does not understand, or which is outwardly different, is somehow a useful tool in the furtherance of democracy, helping to seal the system against unwanted intruders.

This assumes many things: one, that democracy must be a closed system (the USSR, North Korea and Cuba have very effectively demonstrated the flaws of hermetically sealed societies)… two, that it is the sole privilege of an essentially distinct human population (who decides which people are essentially and naturally entitled to participate? how does one get around such stratification being antithetical to the US Constitutional system?)… three, that democracy means uniformity (we have covered this above). Each of these rhetorical bases is contrary to the meaning, the direction and the lessons of American history. And each ignores the phrasing of the nation’s founding documents. In his famous “I have a dream” speech, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said the “promissory note” represented by the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been “returned, marked insufficient funds”.

He meant that the nation had to recognize that its core aspirations had not been achieved, precisely because a group identified by outward differences was still excluded from true equality before the law. It is not by generating new exclusions and separating out the already-here from the imminent newcomers that we will make the United States more American in its identity and ideals, but rather by embracing the diversity of culture and the open humanity professed by the nation’s founding documents, Revolutionary treatises and greatest examples of community spirit.

7. There is, lastly, the fundamental lie that says that official classification of all other languages as secondary, by establishment of an official state language, does not mean one discriminates or that the system of open democracy becomes less open.

In fact, there is no way around the basic truth that the declaration of a national language has only one purpose: to institutionalize discrimination in a way it has never been done before in the United States. And beyond that discrimination, its most immediate effect would be the degradation of the quality of the system of democratic rights and principles itself. During the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain, from 1939 to 1975, his government declared Castilian (the language we know as ‘Spanish’) the national language of Spain. People who spoke one of the other languages widely spoken in Spain (Catalan [català], Basque [euskera] or Gallego [galego]), were pushed out of positions of importance, robbed of their property and systematically persecuted for not speaking the proper “Christian” tongue, as Franco’s regime would have it.

Eventually, people were detained, forced to do hard labor, enslaved by the state to build a tomb for the dictator, tortured and killed, because their use of a distinct language was perceived as a grave threat to national unity, despite those languages having been part of Spanish society for a thousand years or more, long before anything like a “Spanish” state came into existence. When Columbus sailed to the Americas in 1492, he was sponsored by the two kingdoms of Castilla-Leon and Catalunya-Aragon, joined in the marriage of Isabel de Castilla and Fernando de Aragon.

It was not until the year 1714 that a single Spanish state was established under Castilian rule. Since the transition to democracy, beginning in 1975, the present day constitutional republic has four co-official languages, persecution on the basis of language usage is forbidden, no matter the language, and the society is more politically and culturally vibrant, more economically prosperous, in closer contact with its neighbors, more sustainable as a political system, observing and protecting the principles of democracy, an example to other nations.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution promised that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … [or] to petition the government for a redress of grievances”. So, the amendment to Senate Bill S.2611, proposed by Sen. Inhofe, which aims to strip all Americans of the right to interact with their government in any language other than English, directly assaults a basic constitutional liberty. It deliberately makes communication between the government and the people less effective and undermines the right of individuals to solicit the correction of an injustice.

That means less accountability in government when facing certain segments of the population, which is a stratification of legal protections and an abstract but very real form of segregation, enacted by law. Enactment of such legislation would not only violate Constitutional principles, it would hamper the ability of the people of the United States to gather information, share information, and assist in the direction of the republic, a right without which democracy is just an idea.

Further reading on languages and language policy: 

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Originally published May 25, 2006, at CafeSentido.com

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