Almost alone among the peoples of the world, the United States has largely been spared—at least until recently—the bitter conflicts that plague countries whose citizens do not share a common language. Since the early 17th century, immigrants from diverse backgrounds have settled here. In the past, it was understood that in exchange for enjoying opportunities for personal development and economic advancement and a measure of political equality unavailable elsewhere, newcomers would learn English, acquire a useful skill, and participate in community life by becoming citizens. That was what “Americanization” involved. This covenant between America and successive generations of immigrants worked pretty well as long as it was observed by both parties. But this unwritten compact has undergone a drastic revision since the 1960’s.

In the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964 over Barry Goldwater, the Great Society Congress passed a new immigration act that departed from our previous policy of well-regulated entry. The “national origin” quotas that had been in effect since the early 1920’s were eliminated. The 1965 act established a system emphasizing family ties over other considerations. Although proponents of the new law, such as its sponsor in the Senate, Ted Kennedy, claimed that the act would eliminate discrimination, what it actually accomplished—just as Senator Sam Ervin predicted it would—was discrimination against traditional immigrant groups in favor of natives of Third World countries. By exploiting provisions for family reunification, individuals with large families and many relatives were thus able to practice what has since become known as “chain migration.” The entry of millions of people from Latin America and Asia coincided with a breakdown of institutional support for assimilation, exemplified by bilingual education and voting. Later, affirmative action preferences were extended to those possessing limited fluency in English.

In Hold Your Tongue, James Crawford, a former Washington editor of Education Week, discusses the rise of bilingualism and of the grass-roots opposition to it that emerged in the early 1980’s. Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act in 1968; by the mid-1970’s the federal government was funding an assortment of programs in 26 different languages. Although proficiency in English is supposed to be a condition for naturalization, in 1975 Congress mandated that bilingual ballots be made available.

The Supreme Court ventured into this arena with its Lau v. Nichols decision in 1974. In this case, the court decreed that public schools must take “affirmative steps” to compensate for a child’s lack of fluency in English. In 1982, in Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled five to four that states must provide public education at the elementary and secondary levels to children of illegal aliens. These two Supreme Court decisions have reinforced the drive to institutionalize bilingualism in American education.

From the outset, ambiguity surrounded the purpose and definition of bilingualism. At first, the public was led to believe that the emphasis was on the efficient transition in the short term to proficiency in English, However, proponents of bilingual education (including the National Education Association, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, the National Association for Bilingual Education, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) have helped redirect it from concentration on the rapid acquisition of English to a confusing array of programs providing for long-term instruction in the student’s native tongue—even, as in the case of the Hmong, when the language has no written form. Supported by ideologues in Jimmy Carter’s new Department of Education, “bilingual education” quickly emerged as a growth industry. A demand was created for Spanish-speaking teachers; one Department of Education directive even decreed that teachers in “bilingual” programs were not required to speak English!

While Crawford warmly endorses bilingual programs, he admits that they rest on shaky pedagogical foundations. He cites Kenji Hakuta, a bilingual educator who concedes that “an awkward tension blankets the lack of empirical demonstration of the success of bilingual education programs. Someone promised bacon, but it’s not there.” Indeed, a study by the Carter Administration of 38 Spanish-English projects of at least four years duration, released in 1978, discovered that most “bilingual” programs extend a student’s reliance upon a minority language rather than speed his transition to English. Few of those who were deficient in English when they first enrolled in the programs acquired proficiency. The report concluded that there simply was no evidence that bilingual instruction helped Title VII students perform markedly better in either English or Spanish. The author neglects to refer to this study in his discussion of the topic.

Crawford, perhaps unintentionally, confirms what critics of bilingualism have suspected from the outset: that proponents of bilingualism have their own special agenda that is only marginally concerned with “education.” The author candidly remarks, almost offhandedly, that “bilingual education was more than an issue of language; it was an issue of power. . . . Obviously, there were political motives behind these educational reforms. . . . In sum, the Federal government had thrown its weight behind a costly and far-reaching change in the way American schools were run—all with minimal discussion or scrutiny.” though the case for bilingualism presented by minority activists and NEA lobbyists is not a persuasive one, this does not discourage Crawford from devoting most of his book to attacking the critics of bilingual programs.

He chooses to dub the opposition the “English Only” movement, a mischievous misrepresentation of its position. In 1981, then California Senator S.I. Hayakawa—an internationally respected semanticist and Canadian immigrant of Japanese ancestry—introduced a constitutional amendment to designate English as “the official language of the United States.” Senator Steve Symms explained the purpose of the amendment:

The English Language Amendment is intended to stop the practice of voting in foreign languages; it is intended to teach children who don’t know English through appropriate programs; it is intended to make English the only language for official proceedings of governments at all levels; it is intended to make the acceptance of English a condition of statehood incumbent upon all territories aspiring to that status.

Contrary to the impression one gets from Crawford, the amendment would not regulate language spoken by individuals in their private capacities; its supporters actually encourage citizens to become fluent in foreign languages.

By 1990, 17 states had adopted laws designating English as their official language. The author neglects to mention that many Hispanic-Americans have supported these laws in such states as California, Arizona, Colorado, and Florida. First- and second-generation Americans have been among the leading advocates of officializing English, which Crawford admits “makes it problematic to pin charges of nativism, ethnocentrism, or racism on those who hold such views.” Yet Crawford accuses critics of bilingualism of “exploiting the politics of resentment.” At the same time, he makes it clear that “immigration is the paramount reason for linguistic diversity in the United States” (his emphasis). He goes on to observe that supporters of bilingualism “are mistaken to assume that antibilingual fervor reflects little more than racism. Anglos’ dispossession is real . . . there is no hiding the complications or the attendant shifts in power and status.”

Exactly. As former Senator Eugene McCarthy points out in his trenchant new book, A Colony of the World: The United States Today, “If one thinks of the classic definition of colonialism— the arrival of large numbers of people who impose their cultural values and language on the preexisting society—it is hard not to define the current wave of immigration as a colonizing force on the United States. What distinguishes the United States from other colonized societies is that we have the power to prevent it, and choose not to use it.” The bilingual controversy is an aspect of a larger problem. The central issue is whether the current American majority has the will to protect its interests and preserve its culture.


[Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of “English Only”, by James Crawford (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley) 324 pp., $24.95]