TO PART VI
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
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
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
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
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
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