The Perceived Threat of Linguistic Diversity

In a recent discussion about culture and cultural diversity, of which I was more of a bystander than active participant, the topic moved to race, as so many of these kinds of discussions do. And it’s at this point in such discussions that I usually move on, but it wasn’t’ before one of the participants made the comment that he found the steady influx of immigrants to be a threat to his own culture, listing the ways: loss of his own culture’s physical features through interbreeding; loss of jobs to immigrant workers; the strain on the educational system; etc. The one concern that really stuck in my mind, even after I checked out of the discussion, was the threat to his culture’s language as the language of immigrants replaces or infuses his own.

Language is no doubt an integral part of culture. If you accept the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, as many linguists do, then you understand that language influences habitual thought through a kind of linguistic determinism (language determines the way we think). The extent to which language affects culture is debatable, but it’s clear that as languages both infuse and diffuse with cultures, changes in culture occur.

In my own community in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, the influence of the Mexican culture is prominent and the affect of the Spanish language obvious. Most businesses and government offices have literature in both Spanish and English, and many businesses exist that cater only to Spanish-speakers. It certainly helps to understand at least a smattering of Spanish when conducting day-to-day business and greatly improves one’s chances of being hired if bilingual.

This linguistic diversity doesn’t come without a fair bit of resistance and rejection, however. Many of my neighbors are quick to associate cultural presence of Spanish-speakers to the problem of illegal immigration and, in some ways, this is a fair association. The population of illegal immigrants in North Texas is significant, but it isn’t clear to what extent the illegal population is a sub-set of the much larger, overall Hispanic immigrant culture here.

It is clear, however, that language can be a cultural divider as easily as it can a unifier. Shops in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods whose signage is only in Spanish generally cater to only Hispanic customers. The obverse isn’t true, of course, since one can visit any Wal-Mart or McDonalds and find Hispanic customers who speak little or no English. But rarely will the average white Texan shop at the local taqueria or Mexican market. A local chain of pizza restaurants, Pizza Patron, have recently fallen under heavy criticism and even threats simply for deciding to accept pesos from customers, giving dollars as change.

Part of the resistance to change in culture is reasonable: being around those whose language you don’t understand is naturally disconcerting; trying to conduct business with speakers of foreign languages is challenging; and obtaining or sharing an education can be difficult to say the least. But looking back on the concern mentioned in the first paragraph, the danger of losing one’s culture, particularly language, to immigrants seems largely unfounded. It is true that changes will occur in any culture that allows another to infuse with it, but it’s also true that the diffusing culture changes as well. In both directions change will occur –some good, some bad. But I truly wonder about the efforts that some in government are taking to see to it that English is the “official language” and I worry about those that think if they can control the language people speak, they can “preserve their culture.” There are endangered languages in the world, but English isn’t one of them. Indeed, English is one of the languages that is fast wiping out many others.

In North America, only about 194 languages remain out of the hundreds that once existed. 73 of these are spoken only by adults over 50 and 49 spoken only by a scant few individuals. These figures are, at best, from the 1990’s, so they’re certainly much lower baring some sudden, massive revival where young people took the time to learn the languages of their elders. I heard it said once that Oklahoma was home to more dialects and languages than all of Europe. I don’t know if this is true or not, but the Native American population in the state is high. Interestingly enough, it’s also where a state-level Senator is pushing a bill to make English the official language. In her words:

The purpose of this bill is to establish a policy that unifies the state…“It unites us as a common people with diverse cultures. It unites us with a common language… English is the language of success. If you want to succeed in government, economy or school you have to be able to speak English,” Senator Kathleen Wilcoxson, R-Oklahoma City, said.

Instead of passing laws restricting languages, we should be focused more on teaching them. I have friends in Europe who I converse with on a regular basis whose first languages are German and Danish, yet their mastery of English rivals that of many Americans their age. In the United States, we appear to be slow to figure out what Europeans have long understood: speaking and writing in only one language is a limiting factor in economics, academia, and politics.

I’ll leave this post with a quote from the Linguistic Society of America and its position on “English only,” which is a measure that consistently rears its ugly head on both state and national levels:

The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional compulsion to learn the language.

American unity has never rested primarily on unity of language, but rather on common political and social ideals.

History shows that a common language cannot be imposed by force of law, and that attempts to do so usually create divisiveness and disunity. This has been the effect, for example, of the efforts of the English to impose the English language in Ireland, of Soviet efforts to impose the Russian language on non-Russian nationalities, and of Franco’s efforts to impose Spanish on the Basques and Catalans.

It is to the economic and cultural advantage of the nation as a whole that its citizens should be proficient in more than one language, and to this end we should encourage both foreign language study for native English speakers, and programs that enable speakers with other linguistic backgrounds to maintain proficiency in those languages along with English.

You can find the source for the quote above in the links section below.

Related links:

Pizza Por Pesos
Pesos Lift Pizza Patrón’s Profile
Bill would make English official state language
Caregivers help expand children’s language skills
What is an Endangered Language?
Resolution: English Only