Back in June, a belligerent New York City attorney briefly became a symbol of “xenophobia” for those who make it their business to deconstruct what’s left of American identity. Viral video of his tirade in a restaurant over staff speaking to customers in Spanish served as but the latest example of what the media portray as an epidemic of bigotry they are duty-bound to cure through incessant coverage and expressions of outrage. Harmeet Kaur, for example, capitalized on the moment to remind the public from her perch at CNN that “the US has no official language,” while simultaneously conceding that there is “no question that English is the de facto language of the United States.”
“Most people in the US only speak English,” Kaur concedes. “[A]lthough the US is increasingly becoming more multilingual, English probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon.” This line suggests that while most Americans speak English for now, the country is continually moving toward becoming “more multilingual,” though Kaur claims we need not worry about this—and that those who do worry are under the influence of President Trump and a general spirit of “isolationism” that Trump suddenly conjured out of thin air.
Kaur is comforted that “moves to bring back bilingual education programs” indicate “that the English-only movement may be becoming less prevalent.”
“Bilingual” education programs tend to become monolingual, or entirely Spanish-language instruction. “According to the [New York City] Department of Education itself, 36 percent of [English-language learner] students in 2010 had failed a yearly assessment of English-language skills for the previous seven years,” writes Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Gonzalez notes that only
30 percent were able to graduate out of the program within three years. . . . This is not a record of success. This is a record of children being consigned to a bilingual-educational gulag from which many never emerge.
“The Founding Fathers didn’t see a need to declare [an official language],” writes Dr. Wayne Wright, a professor of language at Purdue University cited by Kaur. Wright adds that the Founders felt “there really wasn’t a need to protect [English]. And they didn’t want to offend their fellow Americans who helped fight for independence.” Kaur argues that while “efforts to elevate English over other languages have failed nationally, they’ve seen some success at state levels.” Finally, Kaur quotes Dr. Beatriz Arias of the Center for Applied Linguistics as lamenting the fact that “There is a political equation of Americanness with speaking English. People who don’t speak English are just as American as those who do.”
The Founders were in fact very much concerned with the salience and preservation of the English language. This is demonstrated in Benjamin Franklin’s outrage at German immigrants for their stubbornness against adopting the English language. “Few of their children in the Country learn English,” Franklin wrote. “They import many Books from Germany. . . . The Signs in our Streets have Inscriptions in both Languages, and in some places only German.” Franklin no doubt would have been dismayed at the sight of the Southwest today. He appropriately feared that unless “the stream of their importation could be turned,” Germans would outnumber the English settlers and with “that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.” Moreover, Franklin explicitly warned against allowing German immigrants to create their own linguistic and cultural enclaves, out of concern that the French might someday use it to their advantage. Language, as Franklin no doubt understood, is connected to identity. Groups of people who speak the same language are more likely to communicate and identify with each other than they are with others, but more importantly, they are more likely to act on the basis of that identity in their own interests. In this case, against the national interest of the United States. “Colonial speakers of English fought only for their political independence. They had no stomach for an anti-English language and cultural revolution,” the late historian Willi Paul Adams remarked on the myth that German nearly became the official language of America in 1795.
In 1780, John Adams wrote to the president of Congress,
It is not to be disputed that the form of government has an influence upon language, and language in its turn influences not only the form of government, but the temper, the sentiments, and manners of the people.
All 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention spoke English, and there is not a single example of Congress approving non-English publications during the time of the Founders. In the decade following the ratification of the Constitution, Congress struck down two movements to publish copies of federal laws in languages other than English. The English language clearly mattered to the Founders. Thus, Dr. Wright’s claim that the Founders felt no need to emphasize English as the American language, or that they pulled any punches in that regard, is incorrect.
Following Franklin’s rage against the Germans and Adams’s letter, John Jay declared in 1797, “We must see our people more Americanized.” Jay outlined six fundamental components of American identity with which all Americans were expected to conform—and the English language was one. “Providence has been pleased to give us this one connected country to one united people . . . speaking the same language,” wrote Jay. Justice Louis Brandeis affirmed Jay in 1919, when he declared that the immigrant Americanizes when he “substitutes for his mother tongue, the English language as the common medium of speech.” Thus, to claim as Dr. Beatriz does that Americanness can be divorced from the English language is hardly supportable.
Kaur is correct when she says that people “in this country have been speaking languages other than English since before the founding of the republic,” including Dutch, French, and German, and languages spoken by Native Americans. However, these were and have remained peripheral languages, not vital to the core of American identity. In fact, Samuel P. Huntington documented that, between 1735 and 1775, five major newspapers—in Boston, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, Charleston, and New York—identified “both the land and its people as ‘American.’” Adams, writing to the president of Congress from Amsterdam, specifically addressed the issue of linguistic factionalism:
I never saw the national benefit of a polished language generally read and spoken in so strong a light as since I have been here. The Dutch language is understood by nobody but themselves; the consequence of which has been, that this nation is not known with as profound learning and ingenuity as any people in Europe possess.
The English language is the conduit through which people come to understand and assimilate into American culture. Its primacy has never seriously been challenged throughout American history until recently. “Until the appearance of large concentrations of Spanish-speaking immigrants,” Huntington observed, “in Miami and the Southwest,” the United States was distinguished by the fact that it was an enormous country of some 200 million people virtually all speaking English. Between 1990 and 2000, the Latino population of the United States increased by 63 percent, from 22 million to 35 million. By 2016, the U.S. Census showed that 35 million U.S. citizens over the age of 18—or more than 15 percent—speak a language other than English at home. These non-English-speaking households are, unsurprisingly, concentrated in Florida and the Southwest. As Huntington emphasized, “never before in American history has close to a majority of immigrants spoken a single non-English language.” Kaur’s claim that the English language is not in jeopardy is grievously, perhaps perniciously, untrue.
Kaur is technically correct when she claims that efforts to elevate the English language failed at the national level—technically, because it wasn’t for lack of majority support among Americans. The opposite is true. By portraying its actions as predicated on opposition to “racism,” the federal government interpreted “race-blind” civil-rights acts (as it had done with Title VII) in such a way that the laws authorized and required the government to discriminate in favor of non-English languages. After Congress followed suit in expanding support for non-English languages, organized opposition from Americans arose in the form of the Official English movement. The divide became clear. On one side were government officials, federal judges, and the leaders of minority rights organizations, all of whom were backed by the liberal intelligentsia. On the other side were large majorities of the American public, often joined by significant numbers of people from minority groups. In the face of unprecedented mass immigration of Spanish-speaking people, coupled with the rise of multiculturalism in academia and institutional liberalism in government, the Official English movement reflected the desire of Americans to affirm themselves as members of an English-speaking nation. This was, in many ways, a counterrevolution in defense of the American identity.
In 1986, Huntington found, 81 percent of Americans believed that “anyone who wants to stay in the country should have to learn English.” In 1988, 76 percent of Americans declared speaking English to be a “very important” part of being an American, while 61 percent believed that “the right to vote should be limited to English speakers.” In 1990, a public opinion survey administered by scholars noted, “To the mass public, English remains an important symbol of national identity.” In a 1996 survey across Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, San Antonio, and New York, Hispanic parents “said that teaching their children English was by far the most important thing that schools do.” In a 1997 Orange County poll, 83 percent of Hispanic parents “said they wanted their children to be taught English as soon as they started school,” while another poll that year found 84 percent of Hispanics in California favored limiting bilingual education. In 1998, a poll found that 52 percent of Americans “strongly supported” legislation that would require all school instruction to be conducted in English; they also preferred that students learning English be placed in an intensive English-learning program. Less than 40 percent of Hispanics voted in favor of a bilingual education initiative in 1998. “All non-partisan polls and surveys have indicated that immigrant parents place the highest value on learning English, for themselves and their children,” wrote Ron Unz in 1999, following the success of California’s Proposition 227 (“English for the Children”). Likewise, columnist Glenn Garvin wrote in the January 1998 issue of Reason,
In Los Lunas, New Mexico, high school students walked out to protest the lack of English tutoring. In Dearborn, Michigan, the school board junked a proposal for $5 million in federal money to begin a bilingual program after parents complained. In Princeton, New Jersey, immigrant parents raised so much hell about rules that made it difficult to get their children out of bilingual programs that the state legislature stepped in to change them.
Between 1980 and 2000, a dozen referenda were held across the United States on the subjects of English as the official language of America and bilingual education: All but one proved to be a pro-English victory. In every case, it was not the majority of Americans but the Establishment and its authorized race-panderers who opposed these measures.
The Balkanization of America has grown increasingly acceptable and even desirable under the pretext of cultural pluralism, which has been taught to a generation of public-school students as the cardinal virtue of American life. Properly understood, cultural pluralism, or multiculturalism, is fundamentally the politics of racial, ethnic, and cultural division, resentment, and animosity. Identifying public schools as the centers for learning culture in society, multiculturalists undertook a campaign to highlight “diverse racial, ethnic, and social-class groups.”
Yet language is the basis of community without which a cohesive society is impossible to maintain. In officially multilingual countries, wrote Huntington, the likelihood of “divorce is always a possibility, and historically these countries have in large part held together by fear of more powerful neighbors.” Thus, it is through a common language that a common culture is expressed and transmitted, and it is through a common culture that true nationhood is preserved. Karl Deutsch wrote that communities emerge as distinct nations through what “was found to be the fundamental process of social mobilization which accompanies the growth of markets, industries, and towns, and eventually of literacy and mass communication.”
Without a shared language, these things fall apart. Ideologues such as Kaur may be blind to the fact that they are promoting chaos, distrust, and ultimately violence—but regardless of their intentions, the effect is the same.
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