WASHINGTON – When Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole joined the call to make English the country’s official language last week, he tapped into a resurgent vein of insecurity about immigrants that has troubled the country since its founding.
From before the American Revolution until today, Americans have periodically worried that immigrants would maintain their own languages and split the United States into a Babel-like collection of tribes unwilling or unable to communicate.
That fear has manifested itself in periodic backlashes, from Benjamin Franklin’s warning that immigrants would never learn English, to World War I-era attempts to ban the teaching of German.
Now comes the latest move, to make English the country’s official language, to require the government to print most of its documents in English and, in the language war’s biggest battleground, to ban bilingual education.
Though popular – three out of five support the official language idea – the movement so far appears largely symbolic, a political salve to an economically anxious nation.
The federal measures pending in Congress would prohibit foreign languages in government documents but would not prohibit multilingual education.
Many of the state laws or constitutional amendments are toothless. Florida, for instance, amended its constitution in 1988 to make English the official state language, but its legislature has never followed up with the laws needed to enforce it. (Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1988, making English the state’s official language.)
Dole himself sends mixed signals, saying he wants to end multilingual education, while also saying schools should continue programs to help immigrants learn English. Education experts say that is precisely what bilingual education does.
“This is an issue for politicians, but I don’t think these laws will affect anything,” said Christine Rossell, a political science professor at Boston University who is writing a book on the language wars.
Not true, said Rep. Toby Roth, R-Wis., author of one of the English language proposals pending in Congress.
While his proposal would allow local school districts to continue bilingual education, he said it would abolish a federal mandate and prohibit federal financing of bilingual education. It also would require that all government forms, including ballots, be printed only in English. It would not affect private businesses or private use of other languages.
For Roth and others, the English-first movement is critical to the future of the country.
For generations, he said, immigrants by choice or necessity learned English and turned the United States into a “melting pot.” Now, he worries that too many immigrants can continue to speak their native languages in school, in stores and in relations with the government.
The United States, he says, is turning into a “salad bowl.”
“We want to keep our nation one nation, one people,” he said in an interview. “We need to keep our commonality, our common glue. We’re losing that today, and we’re losing it quickly.”
Mauro Mujica, who immigrated to the United States from Chile in 1965 to study architecture, remembered that “part of becoming American was accepting English. … You can’t come here and expect it to be like where you left.”
Law ‘seems ridiculous’
Now the chairman of U.S. English, a 640,000-member English advocacy group, Mujica pointed to Canada, where many in the French-speaking Quebec province want to secede from the other English-speaking provinces.
“Language is the one thing that keeps a country together,” he warned.
But many others say the English-only crusade is much ado about nothing.
Noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, who agrees that English is necessary to keep the country united, disagrees that it is in trouble.
“More people in the world speak English today than ever before,” he said. “The notion that it’s so on the defensive in the U.S. that it requires statutory reinforcement seems ridiculous.”
Rossell said the marketplace already has made English the official language. Census figures show that 97 percent of Americans speak English “well” or “very well.”
“There is no doubt that English is our language,” she said. “Spanish doesn’t even have a chance.”
In researching her book, Rossell found that Hispanic immigrants want to become assimilated just like earlier waves of immigrants. She cited a Rand Corp. study that showed most speak English by the third generation.
She said many Americans are misled by the wave of immigration from Mexico.
‘Not a threat’
“We have large Spanish-speaking barrios, leading people to believe that generation after generation is not learning English. But that’s not true. What is happening is that one person is replaced 10 years later by another. The rate of residential integration is very high.
“It’s just not the threat that many conservatives think it is,” Rossell said.
In repeated visits to bilingual school programs – those that teach children math and other subjects in their native tongue while also teaching them English
– Rossell said she found “the pressure from parents to learn English is great. … They’d like them to keep their native tongue, but number one is English. That’s why they came to this country.”
Schlesinger noted that teaching in a foreign language while also teaching English is not new. As early as the mid-1800s, he said, Midwest classrooms were filled with students being taught in German, Norwegian or Scandinavian.
“But it was as a means of moving into English,” Schlesinger said.
How the country teaches its children is the most emotional – and perhaps most misunderstood – part of the language war.
While bilingual education classes differ from school to school and state to state, the common thread is this: Children who speak little English are taught subjects such as math, science and history in their native languages while they learn English.
The theory is that children shouldn’t fall behind in those core subjects while they are learning English. And education experts say some research shows that people best learn another language when they are strong in their native language.
But the clear aim of bilingual education is to help children learn English within three years, education officials say. Experts say there are very few programs in the United States to preserve a student’s native language.
“The whole notion that kids are receiving massive amounts of native language instruction is just wrong,” said James Lyons of the National Association for Bilingual Education.
A 1993 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly half of all schools offered some special services all in English, while only 20 percent offered intensive services, using a child’s native language.
To those who question the need for bilingual education by arguing that previous generations of immigrants didn’t have such help, advocates say that few immigrants in previous generations stayed in school very long – a high school diploma was rare and wasn’t necessary to find a job, said Laurie Olsen of California Tomorrow, a nonprofit group concerned about California’s future as a multicultural state.
Moreover, Lyons noted that previous generations did enjoy multilingual education, at least until World War I.
“World War I and nativism killed off bilingual education,” he said. “State after state repealed their laws. Some states made it a crime for some teachers to teach in a language other than English.”
Eventually, it was revived in 1968 when Congress passed a law offering school districts money if they use native language instruction to try to improve the performance of students who speak little English. The federal government now spends about $ 206 million a year helping finance bilingual education.
Despite the fears about foreign languages taking hold here, Rossell and others insist the fear is misplaced.
“If I were a non-English speaker, my worry would be that English would take over,” she said. “In Mexico, Argentina, Brazil. … English cannot be stopped, it’s a steamroller.”