Declaring an official language in the United States is unnecessary—and un-American

The American way of life is alive and well.
The American way of life is alive and well.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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On July 31, Carlos Steven Baez was enjoying a meal with his mother at a Southern California IHOP when an older white woman dining nearby overheard them conversing in Spanish.

“We speak English here,” she scolded as a stunned Baez filmed. “Go back to Spain.”

“You can’t be doing that,” Baez replied. “That’s racist.”

The woman then launched into a nonsensical yet seemingly well-rehearsed denunciation of bilingualism—linking it to Nazism and Stalinism while name-dropping every autocrat from Hitler to Castro. “We want English in the United States,” she said. “We have freedom of speech … we want that freedom.”

Though clearly not representative of most Americans, this woman is hardly the first to conflate American patriotic identity (as symbolized by a superficial understanding of “freedom” and “liberty”) with policies mandating English-only communication. Geopolitical history demonstrates the authoritarian bent of one-language policies, as well as their inability to produce greater nationalistic cohesion, as is so often their stated purpose.

Though the United States has no official language at the federal level, bills are continually introduced in both houses of Congress calling for the establishment of English as the nation’s sole official language. (One such bill, proposed this March by Oklahoma senator Jim Inhofe, is predictably titled the “English Language Unity Act of 2015.”) Advocacy groups like ProEnglish—an influential Virginia-based nonprofit—are a major force behind this kind of legislation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center classified ProEnglish—founded by notorious xenophobe John Tanton—an active anti-immigrant hate group in 2009. In 2013, ProEnglish provided legal support to an Arizona community-college student suspended for a number of reasons including complaining about students “speaking Spanish in and out of class,” according to the Tucson Sentinel.

The student in question, Terri Bennett, became something of a folk hero in the conservative press that year—a courageous figure standing resolute against the tides of forced multiculturalism, reverse racism, and a deterioration of American culture and values.

But what proponents of the English-only movement probably don’t realize is that their closest ideological comrades are also some of their most despised: zealots of the Chinese communist party. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is home to nearly 300 individual living languages. And it is also home to one of the strictest monolingual language policies in the world.

“From its inception, the central tenet of PRC language planning was to promulgate Mandarin Chinese, no matter the ethnicity of the speaker,” writes Arienne M. Dwyer, a Chinese and Altaic linguistic anthropologist at the University of Kansas, in a May 2014 article for World Politics Review. Though the PRC “emphasizes that fluency and literacy in Mandarin are key for individual economic advancement,” as English is in the United States, Dwyer believes these individual-empowerment arguments are “intentionally simplistic.”

In Chinese schools, Mandarin is “a primary means of socialization of minority and non-Mandarin Han students,” Dwyer claims. “So, in the mid-1980s, Beijing began transferring minority pupils to schools in Han-dominated China under the neidi ban, or inland class policy.” Eventually a full third of secondary-school graduates from Tibet were transferred, and by 2011, more than 23,000 of Tibetan primary-school graduates had been forced to change schools as well. In Xinjiang, home to the Uighurs, China’s largest Muslim minority, the ministry of education announced in 2014 that “qualified high-school graduates” were to be sent to inland China for four years to participate in “Xinjiang classes.” These special courses were engineered to teach Uighur youth to “love the socialist motherland [and] safeguard national unity.”

These policies bear troubling similarities to those used by US and Canadian residential boarding schools in the the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Designed to forcibly assimilate Native American/First Nations youth, the institutions did little to ameliorate the overall conditions of indigenous communities in either country. “Little wonder that Tibetans and Uighurs consider these policies to be at best linguicide,” Dwyer adds.

The 1976 Soweto Uprising—a bloody protest led by black South African high-school students against the white-supremacist government—is another example of the problems endemic to one-langauge policies. Students from area schools flooded the streets of Soweto Township to protest the imposition of the Afrikaans language in schools, only to be brutally dispersed by police. The uprising is widely viewed as the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa, although the policy wouldn’t be fully demolished until 1994. But it also stands as substantial proof of the divisiveness and ineffectiveness of forced monolingualism policies. Clearly, already disadvantaged groups aren’t likely to develop any further affinity for a state that dictates how they communicate.

From a communication perspective, these types of one-language policies aren’t even necessary in the United States. Immigrant groups tend to linguistically assimilate within a single generation, as was the case with Germans, Italians, Poles, and Greeks in the early 20th century. The same can be said for Hispanic Americans: a 2007 Pew study found that English fluency jumps 65% between first and second generations.

Which brings us back to the unfortunate incident at IHOP. While the woman in question is an extreme example, the kernel of her anti-immigrant sentiment is nevertheless identifiable in conservative elements across the US political landscape. As recent comments by GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump indicate, good, old-fashioned, anti-immigrant nativism is alive and well—the same kind of rhetoric used by turn-of-the-century xenophobes to discriminate against immigrants from Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe.

The American “way of life” isn’t under attack, because the American way of life cannot be distilled to a single cultural condition or experience. As it always has, the story of America is a story that is ever-expanding, growing richer and more textured—which is kind of the point of this country to begin with, isn’t it?

In its organizational mission, ProEnglish claims “in a pluralistic nation such as ours, the function of government should be to foster and support the similarities that unite us, rather than institutionalize the differences that divide us.” Which is to say that the function of government should be to foster monism—a theory that denies the existence of distinctions or multiplicity in society. Federally enforced linguistic (and by extension cultural) homogeneity? That’s about as un-American as one can get.