I signed the original bilingual education bill in Colorado and believed in its goal, which was to more effectively teach Spanish-speaking students English.
And while I believe that the evidence coming out of California and Arizona deserves thoughtful consideration and debate now that there will almost certainly be a new bilingual education issue on the ballot here in Colorado, there is one argument that I believe is not only false, but dangerous as well.
It is said because it is an advantage for an individual to be bilingual that it is also an asset for a society to be bilingual. I suggest, however, that while it might be a blessing for an individual to be bilingual, it is a curse for a society to be so. Clearly, when individuals are bilingual, it only enriches them. But when societies are bilingual, they are bilingual in two balkanizing and nation-dividing languages. The Southwest, and to a lesser extent the whole nation, is in danger of backing into becoming a bilingual nation without debate or forethought.
This seems to me to be a grave mistake. I look around the world in vain for an example of a bilingual nation that lives in peace with itself.
One scholar, Seymour Martin Lipset, put it this way: The histories of bilingual and bicultural societies that do not assimilate are histories of turmoil, tension and tragedy. Canada, Belgium, Malaysia, Lebanon – all face crises of national existence in which minorities press for autonomy, if not independence. Pakistan and Cyprus have divided.
Nigeria suppressed an ethnic rebellion. France faces difficulties with its Basques, Bretons and Corsicans.
Some people say Switzerland is an example of a successful bilingual country, but that claim does not survive close scrutiny. Switzerland has divided its geography into three separate areas, each of which has a common and dominant language – one French, one German and one Italian.
A nation is much more than a place on a map. It is a state of mind, a shared vision, and a recognition that we are all in this together. A nation needs a common language as it needs a common currency. You have to share something with your neighbors beside a zip code. We need many things to tie us together, but one indispensable element must be that we all speak one common language.
Just as citizens can’t pay their bills with pesos or euros, so also a nation needs to share its joys and discuss its issues and problems in a common language. Immanuel Kant once said, “Language and religion are the dividers.”
It is the glory of America that religion no longer separates us, but I suggest that language is a much deeper and more intractable separating factor.
America has been successful because we have become one people. There is a “social glue” of a common language, a shared history, uniting symbols that tie us together. We live under a common flag, which we honor and salute.
Nations also need cultural ties that bind. That culture was not set in concrete with the arrival of the Pilgrims, but is always changing and evolving.
We can remember Cinco de Mayo as we do St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest, and we can buy more salsa than ketchup without endangering our national soul.
But we must avoid becoming a Hispanic Quebec; we must stay one people and one nation.
Current immigration patterns are different from our historical experience in three important respects.
First, immigration historically was a mix of many nations and languages; now more than half of our immigrants are from Spanish-speaking countries, and in many parts of the country you can live your entire life without speaking English.
Second, immigrants historically came from great distances and had to throw themselves into a new nation; today people can spend every vacation in their home country and hold dual citizenship. Mexican immigrant citizens can now vote for both George Bush and Vicente Fox.
Finally, immigration pressures were mitigated by significant periods of little or no immigration which gave the melting pot a chance to melt. Today we take in four times the historic rate of immigrants without pause.
America has taken in many races, religions and nationalities and made them one nation. Let us debate the best methods of teaching English to our children but let us be careful with our metaphors. It is a significant asset for an individual to be bilingual, but a path of conflict and tension to have a bilingual nation.
Richard D. Lamm is a former governor of Colorado.