Dare to be bilingual

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This is a follow-up on my Language devaluation and Pushing buttons posts from last Monday, and coincidentally also a follow-up on (the first comment on) Bill Poser's Obama's Indonesian post from Friday.

I had promised in the Language devaluation post that I would (when I found the time) collect arguments for why English should not be the official language of the United States. I haven't really found the time yet, but several LL readers were kind enough to take the time to offer their help in the comments section of that post. See the first comment in particular (from Ryan Rosso), chock-full of useful links.

As several commenters point out, a lot depends on what it means to designate an official language — that is, what the practical effects of that designation are. Some think that it would be no more than a symbolic gesture here in the U.S., a formal recognition of an obvious reality: English is by far the dominant language of the nation. Others think (and I agree) that a piece of legislation is a piece of legislation: the original intent may be symbolic, but once it's there it can be used as a tool for less-than-symbolic (shall we say) purposes.

[ Incidentally: recall the calculated shifting around among "official", "national", and "common and unifying" in the House and Senate two years ago, as Ben Zimmer discusses in an LL Classic Post ("English: official, national, common, unifying, or other?"); see also Bill Poser's two posts flanking Ben's ("Senate votes for official English", "What does 'official' mean?"). ]

Whether particular attempts to use such legislation as tools for evil (or for awesome) would be successful certainly depends on many factors, but you can bet your bottom dollar that shit would be attempted. (Apologies in advance to Bill O'Beirne.) My suspicions about this are to my mind solidly confirmed by the opinions of people like Conservative Beach Girl (CBG) who assume that English already is the official language of the U.S.:

Any and all "official" ballots printed in any other language other than English should not be counted and should be considered "null and void".

Upon receiving citizenship, a naturalized citizen must prove some marginal fluency in English. Why? Because English is the official language of our nation. End of story.

Aside from being generally offensive and insulting to me as an American citizen, all ATM machines which use more than English for transactions should be closed. No ballots or census documents should be printed in any language other than English. End of story.

I fearfully imagine opinions like those expressed by CBG being put into legislative action just as soon as the 'symbolic gesture' of making English official is made law.

[ Aside: My good buddy Ed Keer reminds me of his Amish loophole argument, relevant to CBG's citizenship requirement. Why demand "some marginal fluency in English" only from naturalized citizens? We should demand something parallel from American-born citizens as well. ]

Some readers may be interested in trying the following at home. Find a bunch of people (who don't also read LL, preferably) and ask them a series of questions about how much they favor or disfavor public or private funding for voting ballots / healthcare services / school programs / after-school programs / advertisements / other media / what-have-you in languages other than English. Then, ask them whether they think English is the official language of the United States, and after you tell them that it's not, how much they favor or disfavor making English the official language of the United States. I assigned a version of this questionnaire as a class project for a large undergraduate class (200+ students) this Spring. Each student interviewed six or more people, so we had a very large dataset. Many of the results were (to me) unsurprising — though I should make clear that I don't know about their statistical significance. Generally, those who thought that English is the official language of the U.S. were slightly more likely to disfavor public or private funding for the types of things listed above, and there's a clear trend on the seven-point scale from "very much in favor of" to "very much against" making English the official language: the more in favor someone is of making English official, the more they are against public or private funding for the types of things listed above — and the more likely they are to have thought that English is already official (and vice-versa).

This brings me to the minor flap over Barack Obama's statement last week (and his clarification later in the week) that Americans should strive to be bilingual. (Yesterday's Pearls Before Swine comic should explain why it has taken me a while to get to this.) Jokes about Ali G. interviewing Noam Chomsky aside (check out the "terrorist fist jab" at the end!), I think this is a great thing for a presidential candidate who promises change to be doing (especially one who is being accused of pandering to the other side): turning an issue around that knee-jerkingly matters to a great deal of voters and forcing them to look at their arrogant selves in the mirror. What are you doing to encourage better standards of communication in your own country and around the world?


  1. Philip said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

    And don't forget about Puerto Rico.

  2. John Cowan said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

    And the Navajo Nation and the other Indian reservations where non-English languages are still in vigorous use.

  3. dr pepper said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

    There are a lot of websites that offer free language lessons. Could one of the linguists here please make a list of those that seem worth trying?

  4. Hot Tramp said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

    I have to say, wanting the government to ban multilingual ATMs doesn't seem very conservative. Apparently federal restrictions are okay as long as they're xenophobic enough?

  5. Ryan Rosso said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 8:52 pm

    Wow Eric, I need to give you terrorist fist jabs for all the great things you just mentioned in this post:

    -My name
    -The reference to someone who calls herself "conservative beach girl"
    -A comic
    -The Ali G – Noam Chomsky interview
    -Terrorist fist jabs!

    That's five terrorist fist jabs! Good work.

    Jokes aside, the informal interview deal is interesting. Roughly how many knew English isn't the official language?

  6. Michael Roberts said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

    Can I take that poll here in Puerto Rico?

  7. Albatross said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:37 pm

    I am not fluent in Spanish, but I have a good grasp of the language. (I can read and understand it when spoken to me, but I struggle with the proper constructions when I try to speak it myself.) Nevertheless, I think English is a marvelous language! And I don't understand why anyone would not want to learn it!

    Given the conglomerate nature of the language, English is a treasure trove of expression. Imagine two or three words for every concept, and each with its own subtle difference of meaning! All for your choosing. What a fantastic language that would be!

    And that's English. I confess to being a lover of the language, and, just by studying my native language intently, I have gained a knowledge of roots and etymologies that has actually helped me learn Spanish to a great deal.

    So, while I don't think I agree with a Congressional desigation of English as the "official" language of the USA, I do think its richness will be forever lost to those that shun its use.

  8. Joshua said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:39 pm

    Pues, ya es necesario que una persona que quiere ser ciudadano naturalizado de los EE.UU. tiene que poder leer, escribir, y hablar inglés, según los Servicios de Ciudadanía e Inmigración de los Estados Unidos.

    Y por eso, Eric, Ud. no debe tener "miedo" que esa opinión será la ley cuando el inglés deviene la lengua oficial de los Estados Unidos. Ya es la ley.

  9. Marinus said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 11:42 pm

    I want to point to examples of multilingual socieities where there are more than one 'official' language but where a clearly most common language still enjoys a status by virtue of it being spoken by the vast majority of the population, either as the home language or specifically as a lingua franca. It should show that the status of English in the US would be safe even gave the government made Spanish (or Pennsylvania Dutch, or whatever else) equal legal status to English, never mind privilege English in some way the other languages aren't. I don't think this would have been in doubt for most people here, but it bears saying out loud, I believe.

    In my native South Africa, we have 11 official languages. A language being declared official means that you are able to conduct all your government business in that language, from municipal affairs through to submissions to parliament. There is also governmental encouragement for the use of these languages, for instance by showing daily news reports in all of them on the public broadcaster. The country as made its commitment to multicultarism so clear as to render the national motto in San, which isn't one of the 11 official languages, but spoken by a native population nonetheless and given some recognition by the government.

    The thing is, the lingua franca of South Africa, in public and private affairs, is clearly English. It is very rare to have public statements made in any other language, except by people trying to make a cultural point. There are pragmatic reasons for this: it can be quite hard getting hold of the right forms and a government official who speaks Venda when you are in Cape Town, say, far away from the established population of speakers in the north of the country – the distances involved is something like expecting street signs in Catalan when you are in Flanders. Also, South Africa is, like most of the continent, made up of polyglots who speak a home language and at least one lingua franca, so it's easier to switch to a common tongue when conducting business. There are other reasons as well. Compare this to countries like India, where one language gets clearly privileged over others. In South Africa there are historical and political reasons not to do the same, and yet a clear lingua franca emerges, remains, and is no danger of being undermined. It is worth stressing that English is the home language of less than a tenth of the population, and is only the sixth most common language spoken at home.

    I can't imagine why the same wouldn't happen in the US, where English is the native language of the majority of people in the majority of places.

  10. Eric Bakovic said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 12:19 am

    @ Joshua: Gracias, pero ya lo sabía. Como dije originalmente:

    I fearfully imagine opinions like those expressed by CBG being put into legislative action just as soon as the 'symbolic gesture' of making English official is made law.

  11. Eric Bakovic said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 12:21 am

    @ Albatross: Spanish is just as much "a treasure trove of expression" as English. Study it some more and you'll discover this.

  12. Eric Bakovic said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 12:24 am

    @ Ryan: only 395 of the 1,224 interviewees (32.27%) knew that English wasn't the official language of the USA. Again, not very surprising (to me).

  13. Albatross said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 12:26 am

    @ Eric: I know. I have studied it. Please don't assume that I haven't simply because I am not fluent.

  14. Eric Bakovic said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 12:26 am

    @ dr pepper: linguists don't need to bother with language courses.

  15. Eric Bakovic said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 12:40 am

    @ Albatross: I only assumed what was implicit in your original comment.

  16. Albatross said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 12:50 am

    @ Eric: Sorry if I wasn't clear. I was trying to say I have a particular affinity for the English language, and it's not the result of an ignorance of other languages.

    I'll keep my expressions to myself in the future.

  17. Cheryl Thornett said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:33 am

    Has it occurred to the English-only campaigners that Spanish was spoken in the Southwest for at least a couple of hundred years before English speakers arrived?

    (We have the same wretched, xenophobic arguments going on in the UK, blaming immigrants for not learning English when government policy is reducing access to classes. Eligibility only starts after one year and even then the classes are often full.)

  18. dr pepper said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 3:32 am

    @ Eric Bakovic

    > linguists don't need to bother with language courses.

    No, but they can recommend them to the rest of us.

  19. Joe said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 3:45 am

    If we demand some standard of fluency in English from citizens by means of threats to remove citizenship from those who are less than fluent, would that be a bad thing?

    I'm sure that I can find more than a few subliterates to deport, and I don't mean those who are bilingual. After deporting the majority of those supporting this law, we can then allow them to immigrate once again as a non-citizen underclass and lecture them about the etymology of the phrase "the shoe is on the other foot" ….

  20. Dave Ferguson said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 8:28 am

    I may have missed this in comments from others, but even U.S. English believes the "official language by one vote" notion cited by Conservative Beach Girl to be "a patently absurd story." In fact, they cite a theory of the Library of Congress's Historical Materials Division that the modern version of this story was produced by the German-American Bund in the 1930s as pro-Nazi propaganda.

  21. Eyebrows McGee said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 11:11 am

    One's right to conduct the business of citizenship — to vote, to have a fair trial, etc. — isn't undone by one's lack of fluency in English, or one's blindness, or deafness, or other difficulty interacting in the most "simple" standard fashion of hearing and/or reading English. (Similarly, one's more limited rights as an alien, legal or illegal, don't depend on fluency.)

    What I wonder, as an attorney, is this — in some places, you'll have a small claims court division or a petty crimes division that can be conducted in (usually) Spanish, for convenience. If you to go the Chicago DMV, you can get your forms for IDs and drivers licenses in six or so languages (English, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Korean, and something else, IIRC).

    If all government business had to be conducted ONLY in English, what would the costs amount to for providing translators for all of these situations, instead of providing translated documents or occasionally conducting business in another language? Because you can't Constitutionally take away someone's right to a trial, or right to vote; or probably not even their ability to do required government business (get a SS Card) simply because their English is poor or non-existent. And court cases, at least, become quite a bit more expensive when translators are required. (And then, one imagines, there could be questions like, "Is ASL a non-English language or does it count as English?")

    Since one can't overthrow Constitutional rights, unless we suddenly decide as a nation that only people fluent in English have the right to a fair trial, it's impossible to conduct all government business only in English. I've yet to see any discussion of the practicalities and costs of such a decision — and that is why local governments typically provide foreign language services: practicality and costs.

  22. Anna said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    In a recent terrifying experience, I attended a congressional informational hearing on the subject of official English, and had the dubious honor of hearing one of the most ridiculous comments about language that I've ever been privy to–an elected representative expressing the opinion that the quality of a language is directly related to the amount of freedom found in the country in which the language is spoken. It is unclear to me at this time which units are employed to measure freedom (and I'm sure it depends on whether or not you measure it in metric, anyhow); I'll be happy to report back to LL if I find out.

    p.s. an excellent collection of arguments which relate to language rights can be found in the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund's Briefing Book on the topic.

  23. Rick S said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

    @Eyebrows McGee: You seem to have it backward, sir. "Providing translated documents or occasionally conducting business in another language" certainly doesn't avoid translation costs. Conversely, if government business had to be conducted only in English, the burden of translation costs would be shifted to those who need such services, rather than the taxpayers. They wouldn't lose any rights, they'd simply be expected to provide their own translators, just as they're expected to pay their own transportation costs to get to and from court or the SSA office, or to obtain counsel if they can afford it (and if they can't, in a criminal case, a bilingual attorney can be assigned to them).

    Lest you argue that government ought to bear such burdens, it seems to me there's ample precedent against it. The government doesn't compensate people for (the full extent of) wages lost during jury service, nor provide readers for the visually impaired and illiterate, nor offer tax forms in Urdu. And it's common knowledge that a defendant who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer, yet the court expects me to pay for my own attorney. In general, people are expected to accomodate their own needs whenever possible, in dealing with the government. It's translation services that are the exception—and those for certain languages only.

  24. Rick S said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:13 pm

    @Anna: While you're at it, could you also listen out for the units of measurement for "quality of a language"?

  25. dr pepper said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    So, all the literature of the Middle Ages and the Rennaisance must be pretty poor since it was created in monarchies that claimed more right to interfere with ordinary people's lives than any modern dictatorship.

  26. ed said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

    @Anna check out this nuttiness: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2006/jul/06/20060706-085927-3579r/

  27. Nik Berry said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

    ATMs in the UK usually offer German, French, Spanish, Italian etc. As far as I know, of these only French is spoken by (some) natives as a first language.

    I've heard no calls to get rid of them.

  28. David Starner said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

    @Rick S:The court does not expect the defendent to pay for your own attorney; that's why we have a public defender's office. To try a poor Spanish speaker who can't afford a translator in English strikes me as sadistic and fundamentally against the goals of justice, and promoting the idea that justice is for those who can afford it. Having tax forms in Spanish means that they need to get translated once, not over and over by people of questionable competence at doing so, and it simplifies the job at the IRS, who will get more forms correctly filed out.

    I'm imagining a court case between two monolingual Spanish speakers trying to be conducted through translators; what a cacophony! Part of the goal of a small claims court is as a pressure valve; people who can't effectively resolve their problems through legal manners will often resolve them through violent means, which is good for no one.

    It's silly to point out that it's only for certain languages. Of course we can't afford to go out of our way to provide services for the one Ossetian speaker in the US who doesn't speak English. (With the exception of court translators; it's a fundamental demand of justice that the defendant be able to help in his own defense.) Each part of the country is going to have to consider carefully what languages they support, as a fact of what services people need.

    Re: ATM. I work at a place with multilingual customers and bilingual machines serving those customers. I spend a large of my day trying to explain what the machine is saying, and would be more than happy if the machines better supported the full range of languages my customers use. Maybe it's not worth it to add French and Portuguese translations, but removing the Spanish ones is not a economic decision, and might get me replaced with someone who knows Spanish.

  29. nascardaughter said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

    From the language devaluation post (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=333)

    I've seen a number of contributors speaking negatively of people who think English should be made the official language of the US, or who think that signs should only have English writing on them, etc. But has anyone ever given the argument why this is bad?

    A related point that I don't see addressed often is why not having an official language might be good. (Or culturally meaningful/interesting, anyway).

    Personally I think it's kind of cool that the US doesn't have national official language(s). (And I'm sure all you Language Log people know more about this than I do… but my impression is that not having any national official language is a relatively unique thing? Certainly there are nations that recognize more than one language, but recognizing multiple languages entails not recognizing others.)

    I can imagine several ways that people opposed to national English could appeal to positive American ideals, but instead the arguments always seem to come from a sort of defensive crouch in which proponents' claims are negated — understandable enough, but I wonder if it would be more productive to shift the argument onto different ground.

  30. Aaron Davies said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 1:13 am

    I think one thing informing a lot of the conservative support for official English is a worry that we'll end up like the other multi-lingual countries which show up in the news from time to time–permanently split along linguistic lines, home to two cultures which can barely stand each other, let alone communicate properly. Typical examples, in increasing order of division, are Canada, Belgium, and Yugoslavia. (I suppose the prime counterexamples would be India and China.)

    Does anyone care to comment on the realism of these fears?

  31. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 6:36 am

    Personally I think it's kind of cool that the US doesn't have national official language(s).
    @ nascar: Absolutely. Totally cool, I agree. There are others, though: Britain for one, and I'm guessing many more.

  32. Rick S said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

    @David Starner: I did not, and never would, advocate trying a person in a language he doesn't understand and without benefit of counsel and translation. You must have missed that I said a bilingual attorney could be assigned to a non-English speaker who couldn't afford one. In fact, a bilingual attorney is better than separate attorneys and translators for reasons that I think are obvious.

    Re forms, I'm open to persuasion, but the "once, not over and over" (efficiency) argument ignores the allocation of cost burden, which was my point. Additionally, those whose tax filings are simple needn't worry about "questionable competence", and those with more complex filings will be hiring somebody (presumably bilingual) to help them anyway, just as English speakers do. I don't see how it's simpler for the IRS, given that English speakers struggle with understanding the forms too. (BTW, one reason I'm open to persuasion on publications is that I realize it can be difficult for a non-English-speaking immigrant to learn what services are available to him and what his obligations are. I'm not set against informational publications being provided in minority languages, I just think multilingualism shouldn't pervade government at public expense.)

    Why is it silly to point out that it's only for certain languages? If the argument is that non-English speakers have a legal right to translated forms and procedures, then cost should not be an issue. But the fact that services are provided for only some languages tells me that cost is an issue, and therefore it's not a question of legal rights. That underlies my basic argument that the cost of translation services should be born by those needing the services, if they can afford them, rather than by the public.

  33. Eric Bakovic said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    @ Aaron Davies: Do you have any evidence of this sort of concern used as an argument in favor of making English official in the US (written, anecdotal, or otherwise)? I'd like to know how making any one language official would do anything other than exacerbate any pre-existing divisions along ethnic/cultural lines. In the three cases you mention (Canada, Belgium, and the former Yugoslavia), the ethnic/cultural divide may be demarcated linguistically, but it's certainly not the mere fact of multilingualism that causes problems — and I can't imagine that making only one of the languages in either of those places would have made anything but a negative difference.

  34. David Starner said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

    A bilingual attorney is useful, but can't substitute for a translator; I seriously doubt anyone could provide an accurate translation and act as a competent attorney at the same time. Doing one or the other is hard enough. As someone else pointed out above, it's not just moving the cost of the translators; a Spanish speaking judge can resolve an small-claims issue between two Spanish speakers far quicker and more accurately than if everything had to go through translators, and that saves on the cost of court personnel.

    Also, courts are pressure-relief valves. A group of people who don't feel the courts are open to them will resolve problems their own way, including violently, if necessary. Even in pure monetary terms, you can handle a lot of small-claims cases for the cost of one capital murder trial.

    I find the concept that the costs should be born by those needing them instead the public troublesome for two reasons. First, these people are part of the public. Secondly, "the public" very rarely benefits equally from any expense; why should the monolingual Spanish, disproportionately carless, subsidize the roads to back-country ski resorts they can't afford to go to? (Not to mention the millions spent bailing out the airline industry.) But somehow when it comes to providing 34 million people, 10% of the US population, with forms in their own language, it becomes a cost to be born by those needing it. Libertarianism in general is off-topic, but if we're going to try it, everyone needs to handle their costs, not just the poor minorities.

  35. Simon Spero said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

    […] Find a bunch of people (who don't also read LL, preferably) and ask them a series of questions about how much they favor or disfavor public or private funding for […] what-have-you in languages other than English. Then, ask them whether they think English is the official language of the United States, and after you tell them that it's not, how much they favor or disfavor making English the official language of the United States.

    You should probably randomize the order of the two blocks of questions; otherwise you may be priming respondents. I can't tell from the post, but you might also separate questions about private and public funding or provision of services.

  36. Aaron Davies said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    @Eric Bakovic, here's the first three links I found on a cursory Google search of Free Republic for the phrase "official language" together with each of "Belgium", "Quebec", or "Yugoslavia":

  37. The language battle that is tearing Belgium apart
  38. PM (Stephen Harper) says Quebecers form nation within Canada
  39. The Hispanic Challenge (To America) A MUST READ Samuel Huntington (Long But Good)

    The concerns I mentioned can be seen in the comments on those pages.

  40. Bill Muir said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

    Most of the Official Language proponents I've spoken to sincerely believe that English is in danger of being wiped out by Spanish. In our lifetimes. Like, within the next couple weeks OMG someone do something!

  41. Eric Bakovic said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

    @Aaron Davies: thanks for the links, I think. (I would have been much happier not knowing about the existence of such a forum of right-wing extremism.)

    You can still count me as surprised that anyone could possibly think that making English the official language of the United States would somehow avert the supposed problems of multilingualism. I'll simply reiterate the rest of my original reply to your comment:

    I'd like to know how making any one language official would do anything other than exacerbate any pre-existing divisions along ethnic/cultural lines. In the three cases you mention (Canada, Belgium, and the former Yugoslavia), the ethnic/cultural divide may be demarcated linguistically, but it's certainly not the mere fact of multilingualism that causes problems — and I can't imagine that making only one of the languages in either of those places would have made anything but a negative difference.

  42. John Cowan said,

    November 14, 2008 @ 1:31 am

    In addition, making English the official language of somewhere in the United States presumes that the language in use in the United States, or any of them, is a matter of law rather than custom. What happens to English First when Spanish-speakers are in a majority (either actually or in political power) in some state and make Spanish the sole official language?

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