The movement to make English the official language of the United States has found boosters in Congress. House Republicans have scheduled a hearing in October on the issue. Among the bills pending is one introduced by Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wis.) that would effectively halt funding for bilingual education,
abolish bilingual electoral ballots and allow individuals to bring civil suits against institutions that violate English-only federal statutes.
Previous attempts to mandate an official language have been cast as constitutional amendments, a difficult course of action Congress is seldom eager to take. Roth’s initiative, however, may succeed. Since his bill would cut federal spending on bilingual programs, it avoids the political difficulties of pushing through a full constitutional amendment and, at the same time, appeals to a Congress intent on trimming government expenditure. With 50 co-sponsors, including conservative Democrats, the bill could radically alter the relationship between the English language and American identity.
The language question is clearly of major concern to educators and employers, and many observers have warned of the cultural and linguistic “Balkanization” of the United States. The 1990 census found that 32 million Americans live in non-English-speaking households. Of these, 14 million reported that they “do not speak English very well.” Seventy percent of naturalized citizens speak a language other than English in the home, and non-English-speakers now account for a majority of the population in such cities as Los Angeles and Miami.
The need for a comprehensive strategy for dealing with America’s remarkable linguistic diversity is obvious. But in both its content and its motivation, Roth’s bill is an ill-considered and potentially harmful proposal. In the first place, the bill would involve the federal government in a policy area best dealt with at the state and local levels.
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that has neither a stated official language nor a central, government-sponsored “language police.” Instead, America’s complex and nuanced language policy has been shaped in the courts and in local communities.
The Roth bill would change all that by establishing a rigid national language policy that would ride roughshod over America’s increasingly diverse ethnic and linguistic landscape. It is ironic that such a proposal comes from a Congress sworn to bringing government closer to the governed. More important, the bill expresses a narrow and chauvinistic conception of what it means to be an American. On this point, the proposal is unequivocal: “It has been the longstanding national belief,” it maintains, “that full citizenship in the United States requires fluency in English.”
In such a statement, the bill’s framers display an astonishing ignorance of the history of U.S. language policy. Early patriots such as Benjamin Franklin argued that one of the languages of the Enlightenment — Hebrew, Greek or French
— should supplant English in the colonies as a snub to the British. Alexis de Tocqueville found the rich variety of English and other languages spoken in America to be one of the new nation’s most democratic traits.
Since the 1960s, decisions in Congress, state legislatures and the courts have supported bilingual education programs and the use of bilingual ballots for non-English speaking citizens. Embracing the linguistic diversity of American society, rather than prescribing a single national standard, has been the real “long-standing national belief.”
Americans must think seriously about the relationship between ethnicity, citizenship and national identity. We need only look to our neighbor to the north to see how difficult and painful the task can be. But unilateral and ill-conceived initiatives such as the Roth bill, offering platitudes about American unity while ignoring the challenges of American diversity, are a clear step backward.
Charles King is an American research fellow at Oxford University.