Immigrants, English, & American Culture

learning-eng.gifThere has been a lot of hoopla about Latino immigrants and whether they make real efforts to participate in and assimilate to so-called American culture. Some say they do while others say they choose to self-segregate and make little effort to learn the English language. The recent Pew Research Center Report got me to thinking about what makes me uncomfortable about some of the latter arguments. I’ll get to that in a sec–first, one of the main findings from the report…

The report indicates that on average, pretty large numbers of Latinos (particularly Mexican, Dominicans, and those from Central America) speak little or no English. However, it is a different picture when comparing across generations:

The surveys show that fewer than one-in-four (23%) Latino immigrants report being able to speak English very well. However, fully 88% of their U.S.-born adult children report that they speak English very well. Among later generations of Hispanic adults, the figure rises to 94%. Reading ability in English shows a similar trend. [Source: Pew]

Still, there are those who feel the threat to American culture and the English language:

Groups that support controls on immigration and English-only initiatives say the federal government and U.S. companies are making it easy for Latino immigrants to continue to speak Spanish.

“The Pew study points to some of the long-term problems,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors conservative immigration policies. “One in eight American-born children of immigrants doesn’t speak English well. . . . And even the grandchildren of immigrants who arrived decades ago, 6% of them still don’t speak English well. That’s pretty bad news.”

Rob Toonkel, spokesman for U.S. English Inc., dedicated to making English the official language of the U.S., said the Pew report’s finding that 71% of Mexican immigrants say they speak English just a little or not at all is reason for concern. It suggests that people don’t need to learn English because they can access any service they need in Spanish, he said. [Source: LAT]

On the one hand, I can understand the argument for wanting to preserve English as the language of the U.S. Usually the assertion is that having a common language helps for a more unified country. I’m not sure how much I buy it, but I get it–the fear has to do with dividing the country even more than it is.

But what makes me uncomfortable is how this argument is sometimes couched (whether explicitly or not) in a desire to preserve “American culture.” That is a different kind of expressed fear. That has to do with the big bad “outsider” coming and contaminating “our” ways of life. We have seen far too many examples of how similar ideology around keeping a culture “pure” has led to biased treatment at best and barbaric treatment at its worst.

I know, I know, the English language issue is not a perfect parallel to this kind of thought. Yet it has enough of a tinge of it rub me the wrong way. And I’m betting that for many, the concern over protecting American culture is very much intertwined with concern for protecting against the browning of America and the “outside” influences it brings. And that sentiment is scary given how such thinking has played out in U.S. history.


5 Responses to “Immigrants, English, & American Culture”

  1. 1 E December 4, 2007 at 11:53 am

    I’ve never thought that the demand that all Americans learn English was in anyway a covert operation to avert that brownification of America. Indeed the beauty of American culture is the absence of a culture. This country is the tangible product of ideas about religious freedom, advocacy without restraint, and liberty.

    In the formation of this country’s constitution, its founding fathers grappled at length on particular words and phrases. Whereas America sought and won independece from Britain, it was necessary that words such as liberty, justice and happiness be used in a manner consistent with the idea of America. If these words, this language, remained as understood when the country was a British colony, then the hard fought-for independece would have been fruitless.

    Accordingly, the mandate that all citizens speak English, is not a mandate that all citizens speak only English. This desire, is one of maintaining the ideals that built this country.

    By way of a slight digression—this demand is no different than that of old school hip hoppers that desire that rap stay linked to its origins, so that the new generation (as they “walk it out,” “2 step,” and “supersoak that ho’)speak the language of the culture in a manner that upholds its virtues.

  2. 2 Mike December 4, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Hmmm. Common language as a means of “maintaining the ideals that built this country?” I don’t think ideals are as closely linked to language as you propose. Do concepts of “religious freedom, advocacy without restraint, and liberty” require a common language to be maintained? It might make it easier, but can’t these concepts be maintained through multiple means of expression, including different languages, just as religious concepts have (or ideals of democracy)? Does Christianity need a common linguistic language to survive? Does democracy?

    I agree that not all of the arguments for a common English language have a covert mission to avert the brownification of the US. I’m far from a conspiracy theorist. Some of the arguments are clearly about understandable concerns over dividing America. But some of the arguments clearly have to do with a fear of contamination. Xenophobia is nothing new to the U.S. (or most countries for that matter) and there are elements of it in the debate about English.

  3. 3 V December 4, 2007 at 4:24 pm

    I disagree.

    The beauty of America is not the absence of culture, rather, the beauty of America is meant to be the tolerance and acceptance of all cultures. Nevertheless, today I heard the President of this America say that in “three weeks Americans will be celebrating Christmas.” What were you saying about the founding principles of this country and the tangible ideas which include religious freedom? Did the American President just imply that if you are not celebrating Christmas (read: if you are not Christian/Catholic) then you are not American?

    If, as you state, the founding fathers, in their efforts to win independence from Britain, found it necessary to use words such as liberty, justice and happiness in a manner consistent with their idea of America, I have but one question: do you think they were concerned with the liberty, justice and happiness of the Indians as they tried to “assimilate” them while colonizing America? Or, is it possible that those founding fathers denied religious freedom to the Indians because they were not of the same religion and, therefore, those founding fathers tried to force their religion on those Indians by creating one American religion?

    Because they were fleeing from religious persecution and oppression, it is more likely that those founding fathers used words such as liberty, justice and happiness in a retaliatory/reactionary manner. These words were more likely used to show what Britain was not rather than what America was to be.

    As you are no doubt aware, the “assimilation” argument has been used countless times throughout American history. I chose this particular example as it appears you have romanticized the history of this America and its founding fathers. It is evident this country is tolerant so long as you are white, Christian and, apparently, speak English.
    To that end, I find no principles with which this country was founded that require we speak English. English just happened to be the language the founding fathers spoke upon their arrival. Otherwise, we would already have a national language and this discussion would be moot. And, I do not think anyone is confused as to whether this “national language” forbids a person from leaning more languages, the problem is that it can require that we learn at least one.

    But, I still cannot see how forcing someone to speak English furthers the principles on which this country was founded. Doesn’t liberty mean that we are free from arbitrary control? Uhmm, I do not think it gets much more arbitrary than creating a national language. Doesn’t justice mean simply that we are acting righteous, just or moral? Does not speaking English make a person immoral? Does not speaking English cause the loss of good fortune?

    And, as to your digression, countless flaws in your analogy exist but I will leave you with one: old-school hip-hoppers have limited their discussion to hip-hop. You would no doubt find it problematic if hip-hoppers were able to dictate across every genre of music how an artist must express his/her self in order to be acknowledged. According to the melting pot analogy, America was never intended to be just one homogenous group.

  4. 4 Neuman December 4, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    YHGTBFKM! First, Mike hits the nail on the head when he points out that language has little to do with ideals as hats have to do with feet. The ideals of liberty, justice, and happiness that you laud as first principles of this nation (the latter I point out is not in the Constitution) were borrowed largely from French philosophers, who wrote in French. Additionally, I cannot think of any valid reason to require residents of this nation to learn English; not even practical reasons. These arguments are recycled from the Ellis Island days when WASPS conspired to keep European undesirables out of this country. Then, as now, this country will prove that its foundation—irrespective of the prejudiced viewpoints that get bantied about—is one of hope, transcendence, and opportunity. Insofar as these ideals are universal, we must accept that people from all points on the map (with their various religions, languages, customs, prejudices, foods, music, etc) will seek what exists in this world as the only nation providing a person the chance to self actualize.

    And I reject your notion that there is no American culture. We are a culture of many positive, as well as alarming attributes. However, it is my view that identifying culture is a near impossible task as one exists within a culture. That phenomenon is typified by de Tocqueville’s study of America.

  5. 5 Latino... July 14, 2008 at 6:23 pm

    Every racist outbreak is always caused by economic reasons, not because any social or cultural reason. White people in this country critics latinos telling they are threating Social security system, because latino women deliver AMERICAN LATINOS on federal money…as some white poor woman would does!!!!..They do not pay taxes; true is that they DO file income tax and because their migratory status pay more taxes and do not get much money back.
    But critics never say, they work seven days a week no matter weather nor time. They send big money to their countries and spend a lot in this country, and they do not drag big credit card debt, because do not have credit….Now question is how does live better?? and who is the one in deep envy??.

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