Language Loyalties


International Perspectives
on Language Politics

By James Crawford

Do language differences inevitably spell political trouble? There is a widespread assumption that a nation cannot accommodate more than one language without paying a social price. The fear of balkanization that bilingualism will divide and disrupt, fostering tribal loyalties and misunderstanding between groups has generated much support for Official English. Many Americans look at bilingual Canada and see a country at war with itself. While language tensions are not yet acute in the United States, they reason, we would be wise to avoid policies that might encourage a similar situation here.

International analogies have played a starring role in the Official English debate. Unfortunately, they have been stock characters in a rather simple-minded melodrama. Consider, for example, the analysis of Senator Steve Symms, an Idaho Republican and a sponsor of the English Language Amendment. He blames Canada's troubles on the 1867 British North America Act, which gave coequal status (in principle) to the English and French languages. "More than a hundred years later," Symms explains, "the Canadian people suffer from a tragic split as a result of this legislated language difference." Presumably, bilingualism would have withered away without legal sanction. The Senator goes on to warn: "Countless hundreds of thousands have lost their lives in the language riots of India. Real potential exists for a similar situation to be replayed in the United States."<1> By means of such fantasies, Symms reduces language diversity to an internal security threat. (Logically, his argument should extend to religious diversity, a larger factor in India's social turmoil since independence.)

One need not succumb to paranoia, however, to draw negative conclusions about bilingualism elsewhere. No American who has visited Quebec envies the seemingly pointless bickering between anglophones and francophones. Few of us would reject the advantages of a common language, spoken almost universally within our borders. Babel is a curse we can do without, and the experience of other nations may provide some guidance in avoiding it. But skimming superficial lessons can be dangerous in particular, the conclusion that language differences are at the root of complex social and economic conflicts. The Babel legend reverses cause and effect, explains Einar Haugen. Speech distances are the result of social distances rather than vice versa. "Language is not a problem unless it is used as a basis for discrimination," he argues. Yet that is precisely the impact of legislating conformity. However tempting in the interest of efficiency, such policies can end up widening divisions instead of bridging them.

Ronald Inglehart and Margaret Woodward analyze language conflicts as a function of ethnic inequality or more precisely, as resulting from a blockage of social mobility for members of subject groups with rising expectations. Such conflicts are not universal, but historical phenomena. In static and stratified societies feudal ones, for example language differences pose few political problems because the masses are excluded from political discourse (the elites can always hire translators). By contrast, industrialism brings economic opportunities, the migration of rural populations to the cities, the expansion of public education and literacy, and the centralization of government changes that inspire projects to standardize communication and that incite competition among national groups. As a practical medium and a "marker" of ethnicity, language becomes a predictable source of tension. And so, as Inglehart and Woodward observe, language- based animosities tend to "take on a life of their own," though they are spawned by larger social contradictions.

Canada's language politics are impossible to appreciate without a grasp of its history as a union of two founding nationalities. From the outset, however, ethnic equality was purely theoretical. The lowly status of French not only reflected, but also enhanced the economic and political advantage of English speakers, even in Quebec. Language discrimination, by design and by neglect, created a mutual estrangement over time and loosened the bonds of the Canadian federation. Moves toward reform in the 1960s, toward applying at long last the principle of official bilingualism, came too late to stem Québécois nationalism and separatism. Jonathan Lemco describes the backlash of francophones, who have developed their own system of language discrimination within the province of Quebec. Enacted in 1977, Bill 101 has established a French Only regime affecting most phases of government, education, and business. With the understandable aim of defending French against the encroachments of English, the policy has trampled the civil liberties of Quebec's anglophone minority and exacerbated ethnic mistrust.

Language diversity has both costs and benefits, explain economists David E. Bloom and Gilles Grenier. While a Babel of tongues can lower productivity, language skills are also a form of human capital. Their worth is affected not only by the forces of supply and demand, but by social and political variables. For example, research has shown that French-speaking ability is an increasingly valuable asset for Canadian workers, no doubt as a result of official bilingualism, while in the United States there has been a corresponding decline in the value of Spanish. Limited English skills seem to be a growing disadvantage in the American labor market.

Still, the model of "one nation = one language" is the world exception rather than the rule, argues Gregory Guy. Even where one language dominates, the vast majority of nation-states remain linguistically diverse. While this creates a range of complications, governmental responses are generally more pluralist than the nostrums of the Parti Québécois or U.S. English. Official recognition of minority tongues is regarded not only as a question of fairness, but as an opportunity to exploit valuable resources. Australia, with its mix of immigrant and indigenous languages and its English-speaking-majority, more closely resembles the U.S. situation than any other. Rather than focus on the negative example of Canada, Americans might do well to study Australia's resource-oriented National Policy on Languages.

Harold Isaacs, in describing the language problems of emerging nations, also illustrates the problems of generalizing about language conflicts. A powerful myth, which recurs with slight variations in many cultures, the Tower of Babel story crystallizes fears and frustrations about human diversity. As a political factor, however, language may be crucial at one juncture and irrelevant at another. Moreover, its capacities are contradictory. It may be used to fragment and polarize, to serve tribalism and class domination, to unleash bloody strife. But it is also dynamic and flexible, a planning tool for uniting postcolonial peoples, promoting development, and enhancing democracy. Paradoxically, language is an immutable feature of human identity, yet at the same time our most versatile and creative instrument.

1. Congressional Record, 98th Cong., 1st Sess., Sept. 21, 1983, p. S12643.

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.