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No Translation Needed: 'Door Is Closed'

March 14, 2004|Dennis Baron

Linguistic nativism -- the kind that says "speak English or go back where you came from" -- is a regrettable, nonsensical American tradition. The reality is, no matter how hard minority-language speakers work to preserve their speech, they inexorably shift to English.

Still, there has long been a popular perception that English is endangered. As early as the 18th century, German was considered a threat. Benjamin Franklin complained that Pennsylvania Germans refused to learn English and instead sought to Germanize everybody else. When the United States entered World War I, the governor of Iowa targeted German when he banned the use of any foreign language in public: on the streets, in churches, even on the phone.

For the new nativists -- who like to call Miami a foreign country -- Spanish is the enemy. They are wrong: Although Spanish has eclipsed German as the leading American minority language, the 2000 census reports that 92% of all Americans over age 5 have no difficulty speaking English.

Still, Americans who speak only English, as most do, often see other languages as a threat. Let's go back to Iowa. The number of Latinos there doubled between 1990 and 2000, and in 2002 Iowa became the 27th state to make English its official language. However, English in Iowa needs no protection: Only 2.9% of Iowa's population are native Spanish speakers and, according to the census, more than half of them also speak English very well.

In the broad view, despite some states' need for multilingual ballots and education, English is inarguably secure as the language of American government, education and commerce. But in the current issue of Foreign Policy, Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington warns that "the values, institutions and culture" of the creators of the United States -- white Anglo Protestant speakers of English -- are rapidly losing ground to multiculturalism and diversity.

Huntington laments that Latino immigrants retain their Spanish at all and claims that they imperil not just the American language but also American stability. He warns that there is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream. And Mexican Americans will share in it only if they dream in English.

Huntington charges that unlike other language minorities, Latinos oppose "official English" laws, that even when their socioeconomic status improves, they hold on to Spanish, slowing their assimilation. He suggests shutting off Mexican immigration to solve the language problem, assimilate those who are here and preserve the union.

Of course, English is associated with representative democracy, not to mention global capitalism and rock 'n' roll. But Spanish and every other language also has words for freedom, business and music. And English, already a global common denominator, has never been the undisputed property of Anglo Protestants. It began in heathen Europe, traveled to Celtic Britain, was leavened with the Latin of Irish monks, the Norse of Viking raiders and the French of Normans bent on regime change.

Modern English has absorbed words from Arabic, Greek, Navajo, Yiddish, Bantu and a host of other languages.

Before World War I, the flow of newcomers slowed but didn't stop the shift to English by earlier immigrants. Today, even with ongoing Latino immigration, most native Spanish speakers in the U.S. are losing their Spanish by the second generation. That's considerably faster than the patterns for earlier groups.

If Latinos object to "official English" laws like Iowa's, it's not because the laws target Spanish. They object -- as all Americans should -- because such laws translate this way: "We don't want you here."

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and the author of "The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans?" (Yale University Press, 1990).

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