Two New Works Add Fact To Often Emotional Bilingualism Debate

Two New Works Add Fact To Often Emotional Bilingualism Debate.

When journalist James Crawford first became interested in the debate on bilingualism in this country, he was a reporter for Education Week in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s. After a fiery speech by then-Education Secretary William Bennett attacking bilingual education, Crawford decided to investigate a claim by Bennett’s assistants that public opinion towards Bennett’s comments was overwhelmingly supportive of his stance against bilingual education.

In examining the numerous letters from around the country, Crawford found there was more of an anti-immigrant attitude of prejudice against specific groups (particularly Latinos and Asians) that did not speak English as their native language than any expressed support for Bennett’s position against bilingual education. Crawford’s initial examination of the issue did not stop there. The results of his continuing odyssey for the truth behind the so-called “Official English” movement are two books that provide solid factual content to the debate on bilingualism.

“Hold Your Tongue” offers a historical background and analysis of the politics of language in American society, which in Crawford’s purview has largely been significant only with the recent, unprecedented large volume of immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries beginning in 1965 with the reform of this country’s immigration laws.

Meanwhile, in New York’s Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Soviet Jewish immigrants can speak as much Russian as they like without being challenged by European Americans.

“Bilingualism is a problem, it seems, a cause for political agitation, only when it involves Third World immigrants, notably Hispanics and Asians,” according to Crawford. “Euro-ethnics have never come under attack from the modern English Only movement.”

Before the 1980s, says Crawford, the need to recognize English as the Official Language had never been a major concern — until the immigration restrictionist groups sought to garner the support for restriction of immigration through a more moderate message that appealed to middle class Americans. But opposition to the movement developed among Latino Americans and Asian Americans of varying political stripes, including Republicans, left-of-center progressives, foreign-born and recently immigrated residents who had never been politically involved, and anti-communist Cubans.

And while Crawford like any objective-minded investigative journalist for the most part quotes many players on both sides of the issue throughout his book, he minces no words about where he stands personally on the issue of bilingualism. Politically, he sees it as a question of an individual’s right to free speech and secondly a question of self-determination for groups that have been historically victimized by discrimination.

Ultimately, he sees English Only policies as making “little sense” considering that English is spoken as a native language by seven out of eight residents, where immigrants adopt it rapidly as their usual language, and given that English “has rarely played that symbolic a role in the past, except as a surrogate for racism or xenophobia.

“Language Loyalties” includes much of the analyses found in “Hold Your Tongue” but more from the viewpoints of interested players on both sides of the debate — not just those of Crawford. The reader learns that language-rich countries like Australia can thrive culturally and racially with national language policies that look at language diversity as a resource that ultimately is a strength, not a weakness.

The reader is also exposed to the reasoning of proponents of English Only policies, including a San Francisco Examiner editorial which supported California’s initiative passed by voters in 1986 and a speech by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett which criticized government bilingual education efforts. Other materials, including the texts of court cases involving bilingual issues and legislation dealing with bilingualism in other countries offer convenient reference points for those who wish to be more informed of this increasingly important issue of bilingualism.

Crawford’s two most recent works add significantly to the seriousness of debate on an issue that has so far included mostly flaming rhetoric and little substance on both sides.

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