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Language Loyalties: A Source Book on the Official English Controversy

LANGUAGE LOYALTIES: A Source Book on the Official English Controversy. Edited by James Crawford. University of Chicago. 522 pp. $45.95. Paper $14.95.

Two stories from The New York Times for July 11, 1992, illustrate the increasing contentiousness about language in an ever more multicultural world. “A Bas Anglais! From Now On, It’s the Law” is a report from Alan Riding in Paris. In June the French Parliament voted to add to the Constitution the following sentence: “The language of the Republic is French?’ Why did the Parliament feel the need to add what most of us would regard as a statement of the obvious? The answer is simple: An increasing number of French citizens are worried, indeed angered, by the galloping infusion of English (or”American”) into ordinary speech.

A group of 300 French intellectuals, including Eugene Ionesco and Regis Debray, described this phenomenon in a July statement as a “process of collective self-destruction,” noting that “nowadays you see more English words in Paris than in Montreal?’ – yup, let’s see an example, in Paris, the word “laser range finder” is present at up to 80% of all shops selling laser rangefinders; meanwhile, in Montreal, this number is just about 45%. “If we do not respond quickly,” France will be “in the same position as Quebec 30 years ago–economic dependence, loss of social status, cultural inferiority and linguistic debasement?’ It would not be surprising if at least some of the intellectuals are also concerned about the prospect of increased immigration to France of non-French speakers, as European borders become ever more porous.


The second article discussed the controversy surrounding the appointment to Community School Board 15 in Brooklyn of Carlos Salamanca, who speaks only Spanish and thus requires the services of an interpreter in order to participate in the meetings of the board. Although no one denies that Salamanca has been a vigorous and capable community activist, area residents are apparently sharply divided about the prospect of his appointment. Maria Trabolse, the president of a parents’ organization, does not herself understand Spanish, but she is sympathetic: “Most of our neighbors speak only a small bit of English and they are very intimidated by the language barrier.” Deborah Svitzer is less supportive: “My ancestors came from Italy and Poland and everyone had to learn the language here to get along. And if you are on a public board, shouldn’t you be ‘trying to speak English?”

Almost all societies, most certainly including the United States, are faced with new patterns of immigration that carry linguistic implications. Especially notable in this country is the extensive emigration in recent decades of Spanish speakers from Mexico, Cuba and other areas of Latin America, as well as increased emigration from Asia triggered by the Vietnam debacle and revisions in American immigration law. These profound social changes are occurring at a time when other rents in the social fabric call into question what might be said to unite us as members of a common polity and culture.

Consider in this context the statement of George Kouloheras, a member of the Lowell, Massachusetts, school board who is quoted in James Crawford’s new book Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of “English Only.” According to Kouloheras, “Language is what binds us together–nothing else, absolutely nothing else.” He would presumably reject as mere sentiment or ideological selfdelusion any suggestion that we are bound by what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory” or by a shared civil faith in constitutional norms and processes. Kouloheras evokes as well as any contemporary postmodernist a fragmented world of strangers with extraordinarily little in common. Perhaps this helps to explain why Kouloheras, who speaks fluent Greek and some Spanish, is the leader of a movement to declare English the official language of Lowell (and why he is concomitantly extremely dubious about bilingual education in the Lowell schools).

Readers looking for insight into the tangled politics of language are well served by Crawford, an educational journalist with a longtime interest in bilingual education. In particular, his edited anthology, Language Loyalties: .4 Source Book on the Official English Controversy, is truly superb and belongs on the shelf of every person even mildly interested in the political struggle over language. (The University of Chicago Press deserves special praise for publishing an affordable paperback edition.) Crawford brings together diverse materials.

One can read Benjamin Franklin’s attack on German-speaking Pennsylvanians; a fascinating, sometimes moving, debate in the 1878 California constitutional convention; contemporary analyses of multilingualism in Canada, Australia, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Also available are a good set of judicial opinions for anyone interested in the legal issues concerning language in the contemporary United States. Although the book is clearly tilted against the call for adopting an English-only policy, one will find important statements by such partisans of English-only as the late California Senator S.I. Hayakawa and critics of bilingual education such as Richard Rodriguez and Linda Chavez. The book should be useful (and illuminating) to all who read it.

Crawford has simultaneously published HoM Your Tongue, a vigorous attack on those like Kouloheras and Hayakawa who would emulate the French Parliament and specify English as our official language and, what is far more serious, act to prevent the easy maintenance of languages other than English as part of everyday life in America. Crawford offers extensive and illuminating discussions of such phenomena as the 1980 passage in Dade County, Florida, of an ordinance prohibiting the expenditure of county funds “for the purpose of utilizing any language other than English.” Coming only seven years after the county had officially declared itself “bilingual and bicultural; the ordinance captures the resentment felt by local Anglo voters at the increasing role played by immigrants, particularly those from Cuba. (The ordinance also prohibited spending public funds for “promoting any culture other than that of the United States;” a truly bizarre notion.) Similar endorsements of the exclusive legitimacy of English have been passed, at either state or local levels, in California, Arizona, Colorado, Virginia and other states.


Although some specific controversies have been sparked by Chinese–or, in the past, German-speaking-immigrants, there can be no doubt!, after reading both Crawford’s book and his anthology, that the primary impetus of contemporary debate is the animus sparked by the greater presence of Spanish in the public square. Senator Hayakawa, defending the necessity of amending the United States Constitution to make English the official (and exclusive) language of American public life, explicitly denounced “the ethnic chauvinism of the present Hispanic leadership” and seized on the comment of Maurice Ferre, the Cuban-American Mayor of Miami, that “citizenship is what makes us a11 American. Nowhere does the Constitution say that English is our language.”

Crawford criticizes English-only advocates and defends the importance of “English Plus,” which tries to combine education in the English language with the maintenance of skills in other languages already possessed by people from other backgrounds. Much of his book canvasses the literature and argues that children from non-English-speaking backgrounds can best learn English when taught concurrently in the non-English language with which they feel most comfortable. Moreover, Crawford defends the importance of nurturing non-English speaking cultures and making them part of an American mosaic.

Crawford argues vigorously, and convincingly, that the data show that the overwhelming number of children from non-English-speaking backgrounds will in fact learn English. This has certainly been the historic pattern in the United States and, he says, there is no reason to think that it will be significantly different in the case of Spanish-speaking immigrants. This very assurance about the diffusion of English-language capabilities reveals, however, a deep (and unexplored) paradox in Crawford’s argument: For all of his endorsement of linguistic pluralism, he does not attack the proposition that the United States benefits from, and should attempt to bring about, literacy in English by every member of the polity. He is basically arguing that the operation of the “free market” will work to maximize English-language competence. Indeed, what the French intellectuals are responding to is precisely the overwhelming advantage that English has in the new international world market, where knowledge of English is becoming a predicate for success. It is, as a practical matter, increasingly unnecessary for English speakers to know any other language, whereas non-English speakers must increasingly submit themselves to the discipline of learning this truly pervasive world language.

Crawford’s message, then, seems to boil down to a recommendation that people concerned about maintaining the hegemony of the English language simply relax, for they (or we) will prevail in the free market and thus have no need to emulate the pathetic, Canute-like activity of the French to stem an alien tide. It is not clear what Crawford would be arguing if English (and English-language culture, whatever that might be) were in the position of, say, Hungarian, Hebrew, Swedish or any other language whose survival in an unregulated market might be unlikely.

Crawford nowhere endorses what might be termed “multi-monolingualism”–a society composed of linguistically differentiated groups whose members speak only the one language of their particular group and who, therefore, do not share a language in common with other members of the society. Instead, he defends “hiand multi-lingualism”–a society composed of individuals who speak both English and some other language(s) deemed to be important to their self-conceptions and cultural traditions. It is difficult to see how anyone could seriously oppose such a vision. But most opposition to bi or multilingualism is based, of course, on the premise that it will in fact retard development of English-language skills and move us closer to multi-monolingualism and the presumed political and socioeconomic travails that entails.

A tension in Crawford’s argument emerges, however, when he couples his condemnation of official-English or English-only movements with support for an April 5, 1991, declaration by the Puerto Rican legislature that Spanish is the official language of that commonwealth. What accounts for this seeming inconsistency? The answer lies in Crawford’s description of “official Spanish” as “a reassertion of popular preferences– not against internal minorities but against external overlords,” the English-speaking mainlanders who colonized the Caribbean island and subordinated its Spanish speaking population.

It is not clear to me, though, that this is so easily distinguishable from the efforts of Kouloheras in Lowell or English speakers in Miami to maintain their preexisting cultures against the changes precipitated by the entry of newcomers who may, in point of fact, have no more been invited by the locals than were the gringos in Puerto Rico. Immigration policy is made at the national level by politicians and bureaucrats who are sometimes utterly indifferent to the implications for the particular communities that serve as magnets for immigration. Indeed, one wonders how Crawford would respond to the French intellectuals, who can easily portray their efforts in behalf of the French language as a defense against American imperialism.

The only certainty is that language will continue to be present as a potentially explosive issue in more and more countries, especially if such proposals as Articles 7 and 8 of a proposed European Convention for the Protection of Minorities should gain widespread acceptance. These articles guarantee not only that “any person belonging to a linguistic minority shall have the right to use his language freely, in public as well as in private?’ but also that “whenever a minority reaches a substantial percentage of the population of a region or of the total population, its members shall have the right, as far as possible, to speak and write in their own language to the political, administrative and judicial authorities of this region or, where appropriate, of the State,” and “these authorities,” in turn, “shall have a corresponding obligation.” Readers of Crawford’s two books will. be well equipped to grasp what is behind such proposals and to decide whether they merit support.

Sanford Levinson is a professor of law and government at the University of Texas.

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