Friday, December 21, 2007

Codifying English

"We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house."
—Theodore Roosevelt (1906)

Since the first non-English-speaking immigrants arrived in the British colonies of North America, nativist anglophones have fretted about the imminent loss of their language and , by implication, their culture. In its most extreme forms, the English-only movement has supported the complete elimination of Native American languages and, during World War I, the removal of all books in German from public libraries [1] .

Now, capitalizing on the current hysteria over immigration, some thirty states [left] have adopted English as their "official" language. Bills in congress threaten to do the same for the federal government.

Proponents argue that the current wave of immigrants (read: Hispanics), unlike their predecessors from Europe, are unwilling or unable to learn English—a notoriously difficult language to acquire by any standard. Government support of bilingualism, they claim, will only perpetuate the linguistic isolation and economic marginalization of the growing Spanish-speaking minority. The English-only movement raises the dire prospect that unassimilated immigrants will even become a separatist force that will seek reunification with Mexico, undoing the results of the Mexican War and the Gadsden Purchase.

The only response for the nativists is a kind of tough love: Spanish-speaking children will be forced to undergo total immersion in English—all for their own benefit, of course.

As it turns out, the Hispanophobes needn't be so alarmed. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center, released on November 29th, found that:
Nearly all Hispanic adults born in the United States of immigrant parents report they are fluent in English. By contrast, only a small minority of their parents describe themselves as skilled English speakers. This finding of a dramatic increase in English-language ability from one generation of Hispanics to the next emerges from a new analysis of six Pew Hispanic Center surveys conducted this decade among a total of more than 14,000 Latino adults. The surveys show that fewer than one-in-four (23%) Latino immigrants reports being able to speak English very well. However, fully 88% of their U.S.-born adult children report that they speak English very well. Among later generations of Hispanic adults, the figure rises to 94%. Reading ability in English shows a similar trend.
The study also showed:
Latinos believe that English is necessary for success in the United States... Asked whether adult Latinos “need to learn English to succeed in the United States, or can they succeed even if they only speak Spanish,” 89% of Hispanics in the 2002 survey said that they need to learn English. Slightly more Spanish-dominant Hispanics (92%) voiced this belief.

The other side of the coin is that many Latinos believe that inability to speak English well is the leading cause of discrimination against Hispanics. And discrimination is seen as a major problem in keeping Hispanics from succeeding in America: It was cited by 44% of Latinos in the 2002 survey, 58% in the 2006 survey and 54% in the 2007 survey.
Spanish-speaking immigrants have a thorough understanding of the realities that motivated earlier waves of immigrants to acquire proficiency in English as quickly as possible:
How do the patterns we found resemble or differ from those experienced by the last great influx of immigrants a century ago? The broad trajectory appears to be similar. Researchers generally agree that immigrants who arrived a century ago largely spoke their native language, especially at home. Their U.S.-born children used English and their parents’ native tongue. The children of U.S.-born parents—i.e., the grandchildren or later descendants of immigrants—spoke mainly or only English.


From the first generation to those that follow, we see a nearly complete transition from Spanish to English dominance.
Members of the second and third generations retain the ability to speak some Spanish at home:
Slightly more than half of the second generation (56%) say they speak Spanish very well, as do 29% of the later generations. But Spanish retains a foothold in the third generation and beyond, with 52% reporting they speak it at least pretty well.
But English prevails:
Spanish is the language that most foreign-born Hispanic adults (52%) speak exclusively at home. That proportion drops to 11% among second-generation adults and 6% among those in the third and higher generations.
So if only 6% of third-generation adults speak Spanish at home, where's the great threat that makes it so important to declare English the official language of the U.S.? No doubt the perceived danger has more to do with the skin color, socioeconomic status and demographics of Spanish-speaking immigrants than a desire to maintain the hegemony of the dominant language.


The map [inset] shows the states in which English has been designated the "official" language. Three states have two official languages: French and Spanish, respectively, in Louisiana and New Mexico; Hawaiian and English in Hawai'i. [Wikipedia Commons]

[1] When I started public school in Maine, "subprimary" still substituted for the German "kindergarten" ("child's garden") many decades after the end of that war.