Language Loyalties


Symbolic Implications of
Language Conflict

By James Crawford

Why has "bilingualism" suddenly become a burning issue in the United States? A simple answer is that linguistic diversity increased sharply in the 1980s, owing to sharply increased immigration. More immigrants and refugees entered the country during the last decade than any other since 1901-10. The majority of newcomers no longer arrived from Europe, but from the Third World; racially and culturally, they were even more heterogeneous than the "new immigrants" that alarmed nativists three generations ago. With more contact between more language groups, and with more demands on government for more bilingual services, friction was inevitable between monolingual Americans and speakers of other tongues. Language barriers created, or at least exacerbated, social tensions and thus led to political conflicts.

While there is undeniable truth in this explanation, it leaves a lot unanswered. "Irrational fear" may be a universal response to foreigners and to foreign speech, as Carlos Alberto Montaner suggests. And yet, the questions persist: Why are Americans today so eager to legislate Anglo-conformity? Why wasn't Official English a salient issue in earlier periods when ethnic diversity was at least as prevalent? Why have such measures been adopted in states like Alabama that have minuscule populations of linguistic minorities? Why is the idea so broadly appealing, attracting white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Euro-ethnics, and to a lesser extent, blacks; racial reactionaries as well as supporters of civil rights; Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives? Something more is at work than a visceral reaction to language differences.

It is ironic, notes Joshua Fishman, that the Official English campaign has appeared at a time when English is not only not threatened, but is becoming the preeminent world language. He analyzes English Only as a classic nativist movement, a diversion from real social problems into a mythic world of scapegoats and stereotypes. Proponents have seized upon bilingualism as a metaphor for troubling social change. "Defending" English provides a way to express anxieties that have little to do with language: the United States' slippage as a superpower, economic polarization in the Reagan era, rootlessness and the decline of community, our seeming impotence in coping with crises both foreign and domestic.

At the same time, there are rational if sometimes concealed motives that guide the Official English campaign. James Crawford unveils the intimate connections between U.S. English and the anti-immigration lobby. A single citizen-activist, Dr. John Tanton, has been the principal fundraiser, organizer, and intellectual force for both causes. His philosophy was elaborated in a confidential paper warning of the perils of changing demographics in particular, "the Latin onslaught" from South of the Border. Widely regarded as anti-Hispanic when it surfaced during the campaigns of 1988, the memorandum created a scandal that forced the resignation of Tanton and Linda Chávez from the leadership of U.S. English. At the same time, it uncovered some surprising ideological bedfellows. While this movement has attracted ultra-conservatives like Larry Pratt, the founder of English Plus (as well as the Committee to Protect the Family, Gun Owners of America, and U.S. Border Control), Dr. Tanton's roots are in liberalism. His language- and immigration- restrictionist positions evolved out of, and not in spite of, his environmental and population- control advocacy.

Politically, Official English fits no predictable pattern. In Texas, 92 percent of Republican voters expressed their support in a 1988 straw poll, while Democratic leaders in the legislature blocked a binding statewide referendum. And yet, the lead sponsor of Official English has been a Democrat, while the Texas Republican hierarchy, hopeful of recruiting more Hispanics, has quietly tried to sabotage the campaign. Meanwhile, Republicans in the California Assembly have united in support of English Only measures, prompting Governor George Deukmejian to veto bilingual education bills. But in Florida, following a landslide vote to adopt Official English, it was Republicans (largely Cuban Americans) who spearheaded the defeat of Democratic legislation to enforce the amendment.

As a symbolic issue, language can carry a variety of political meanings, depending on local conditions. Official English has affected no two communities in quite the same way. Miami, the birthplace of the English Only movement, illustrates the power of ethnicity to override ideology, with liberal Jews attacking language rights and Cuban conservatives defending them. Max Castro analyzes the Hispanophobic inspiration for Dade County's "anti-bilingual ordinance" the jealousies, cultural resentments, and status anxieties that Anglo-Miamians frankly acknowledge. In Monterey Park, California, where a similar backlash has greeted Chinese immigrants, Official English has been tied to antidevelopment activism. John Horton and José Calderón describe an attempt to navigate these waters by a controlled-growth, ethnic-harmony coalition, which ultimately succeeded. Southeast Asian refugees and Latino newcomers in Lowell, Massachusetts, have encountered a more traditional nativist reception. Camilo Peréz-Bustillo outlines the rise of English Only as an instrument to oppose bilingual, desegregated schools.

Quantitative attempts to analyze support for Official English remain at a primitive stage. One problem is that the public is confused about the issue's implications, as revealed by opinion polls. How the question is posed can be significant. For example, when the New York Times/CBS News Poll asked whether government should conduct business bilingually in areas with non-English- speaking minorities, or only in English, respondents favored the latter by 60 percent to 36 percent. But when the question changed slightly to imply that non-English-speakers might be denied services under an English Only policy, respondents were equally split, at 47 percent.<1> Simply asking, "Should English be the official language?" tends to elicit overwhelming sentiment in favor. A demographic breakdown yields few significant patterns when 80-90 percent of voters are on the same side of the issue.

Nevertheless, after dissecting one of the more sophisticated exit polls on Official English, Carol Schmid ventures some conclusions. First, ethnicity (Hispanic or Anglo) is a significant determinant of opinions on the issue. Second, in supporters' lack of variation across education and income levels, English Only departs from the traditional model of conservative social movements. Taking a more ethnographic approach, Joanne Bretzer explores the symbolic function of language politics in Miami. She discovers links between Anglo-conformity and nostalgia for a simpler, homogeneous community as if Official English could somehow turn back the clock.

If language restrictionism is not the answer, what is? Mary Carol Combs describes the strengths and drawbacks of English Plus, the major slogan and policy alternative advanced by opponents of English Only. Despite the ranks of educators and civil rights advocates who have rallied behind English Plus, it has yet to capture the popular imagination.

1. On June 19-23, 1986, the question was: "In parts of this country where many people speak a language other than English, should state and local governments conduct business in that language, as well as in English, or should they only use English?" On May 11-14, 1987, the question was: "Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the Constitution that requires federal, state, and local governments to conduct business in English and not use other languages, even in places where many people don't speak English?" The sample's margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: From LANGUAGE LOYALTIES: A SOURCE BOOK ON THE OFFICIAL ENGLISH CONTROVERSY, by James Crawford, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1992 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.