While supporters of official English insist on protecting the language spoken universally in the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic, a new report from California confirms what data from the 2000 Census already suggested, that immigrants to the U.S. are losing their language and becoming monolingual English speakers. And theyre doing it fast.
During the big immigration waves of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it often took three generations for hyphenated Americans to abandon their heritage tongue and become monolingual English speakers. Today assimilation to American culture is so irresistible that many are doing it in two.
Advocates of strict border control reacted with alarm to this news: three generations is way too long, some of them keep insisting, even though their own Irish, Italian, Polish, Japanese or Lithuanian forebears took that long, and some German speakers in the Midwest and French speakers in Maine held on even longer than that.
But communities in the U.S. intent on preserving their ethnic culture know that everyone, kids, grownups, teenagers, all are switching to English, and there’s no stopping them. Sure, some of the adults take longer, because their language skills may be a little less spry than those of the kids, and if they live in ethnic neighborhoods they can do their shopping and their socializing in the old country’s language, and they can even work without learning English. But those holding on to their first language are in the minority.
In some cases the United States has worked hard to eradicate first languages and replace them with English. It was the policy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to force Indian children to attend boarding schools where they were immersed in English and punished if they spoke Navajo or Hopi, even at meals, at recess, or in the dormitories at night. All that changed in the 1970s, and because today many Indian languages are down to their last few speakers, the House of Representatives has held hearings on a Native Language Immersion Bill which will fund schools whose mission now is to prevent those languages from disappearing.
It’s not just in the U.S. that we find conflicts between majority and minority languages. Irish, Scots Gaelic and Welsh were swamped by English when England burst its borders to become Great Britain, but efforts to preserve these endangered languages have failed despite strong government backing and legal protection.
In the same week that the loss-of-Spanish report came out, newspapers chronicled government efforts around the world to preserve, protect and nurture Javanese, Ukrainian, Quechua, Romany, Swahili, and Latvian, and to reform Belarusian. Wherever minority and majority cultures meet, the language of the minority or of those who may be in the majority, but out of power, seems to recede as the high-status language spreads.
While some countries promulgate language laws to solidify the power of the group that already makes the laws, we don’t need to prop up English in the United States. I once argued facetiously in the Washington Post that if we wanted to make sure that everybody spoke English, we shouldn’t make English official, we should ban it instead. (http://www.english.uiuc.edu/-people-/faculty/debaron/essays/ban.htm). But that’s not necessary either.
One sign that though we may hear them all around us, other languages are declining in the face of English, is the fact that more and more U.S. schools are offering special classes in languages like Spanish, Chinese and Hindi for students trying to reclaim a linguistic heritage which they and their parents fear they have already lost irrevocably. And sure, there’s a still a big market for Spanish-language radio and TV in many U.S. markets, but even the ethnic stations are facing demands for Spanish-style programming in English for the growing number of Hispanics who like Latin entertainment but can’t follow it without subtitles.
The little borough of Bogota, New Jersey, tried unsuccessfully to put an official English referendum on the November ballot, but Bogotans concerned that too many townspeople are reading Spanish billboards should worry instead about finding ways to preserve the Spanish of local residents if they want to remain competitive in the global economy.