Press “One” for English
Deborah Schildkraut, J95, assistant
professor in the Department of Political Science, spoke with
Tufts Magazine about her new book, Press “One” for
English: Language Policy, Public Opinion, and American Identity
(Princeton University Press, 2005). To research the topic,
she analyzed surveys and conducted focus groups to examine
what shapes Americans’ views on language and identity.
sets language policy in the United States?
It’s mostly been state and local governments that have
addressed this issue. The federal government has only debated
making English the official national language since an official-English
bill was introduced in Congress in 1981. A version of this
bill still gets introduced every year in Congress, but usually
it gets referred to committee and doesn’t go anywhere.
Most of what happens is at the state level, where state legislatures
will declare English the official state language or citizens
themselves will vote on ballot initiatives.
What caused it to become a national
issue in the ’80s?
One factor is that people started to encounter more and more
linguistic diversity in their day-to-day lives. Another
argument that’s made is that it’s a proxy issue
for being anti-immigrant, that it’s not politically
acceptable to say certain people shouldn’t be allowed
to come here or can’t be citizens. There was a time
when it was acceptable to say those things. Now it’s
not, and so some argue that we see more efforts concentrated
on language policy as a way to vent those types of concerns.
Still another argument is that having multiple languages
in public spaces creates a set of logistical problems for
participatory democracies. I think some proponents are
misguided in the belief that declaring English the official
language will actually promote the learning of English.
But for some people supporting these kinds of policies,
the goal is to make sure we have a common language.
People may be surprised to learn that
most countries actually do have an official language. Why
do you think the United States doesn’t?
One of the guiding ideas for what being American is all about
is that we are a product of immigration and that makes it
a difficult issue to deal with. In part, at the federal level,
the way to deal with it has been not to deal with it. That’s
certainly one of the arguments that’s been made for
why we never declared an official language when the Constitution
was written. I write in the book that the union was seen
as so tenuous, why introduce this aspect of the Constitution
that would cause so much controversy when we needed to hold
together. The other argument is that it was just assumed
that anyone who was a “true American” would know
English. In a society that views itself as immigrant-based,
it’s not clear whether you should have an official
language, whether you should be welcoming of multiple languages,
or whether you can have both an official language while accommodating
Can you summarize the four concepts of American identity
you write about in the book?
Liberalism is the idea of America as the land of freedom
and opportunity, both political and economic. Civic republicanism
is the idea that America is a participatory society with
dutiful citizens and vibrant communities, the emphasis there
being on responsibilities rather than rights of citizenship.
Ethnoculturalism is rejected by a lot of people today but
it’s still ingrained in our society. It is the idea
that American identity is about a very narrow cultural definition,
that Americans are white, Protestant, and of Northern European
ancestry. Finally is incorporationalism, which is complicated
and somewhat contradictory but basically comes down to the
idea that we are an immigrant society.
When people think about what makes someone a real American,
what are the most common characteristics they refer to?
What I argue is that people believe in all of these things.
People may not like that they believe in ethnoculturalism,
but a lot of people have an over-learned idea that comes
to them automatically. One of my students said the other
day, “When I think of the presidency in the U.S., I
picture an old white man.” For a lot of people, that’s
the cultural standard. It’s not that one person is
an ethnoculturalist while another is a civic republican.
These concepts are pervasive and we learn about them from
an early age. Whichever one is going to guide how we feel
can depend on the context of a particular situation. It can
depend on how an issue is framed by political actors. But
they’re all out there and they’re all within
What reasons did the supporters give for making English
the official language of the country?
Some of it had to do with open resentment of immigrants.
They said immigrants don’t try to blend in the U.S.
and don’t want to become Americans. But that wasn’t
overwhelmingly the dominant reason. Other reasons had to
do with people valuing the American dream: that you can come
here as an immigrant with nothing and become successful,
and they felt that only works if you know English. For many,
what they really want is for people to know English. It’s
not necessarily that they want English as the official language.
They see it as a way to bring about that goal. They value
all the reasons why a participatory democracy needs a common
language. People need to be able to communicate with one
What was the main argument of the opponents?
People were rejecting the way that it seemed to be anti-immigrant.
Another argument was that it deters people from being part
of the political process. They thought there was no harm
in providing materials in multiple languages and it only
serves to marginalize people even more if we don’t.
People also thought it violated the view of the United
States being a nation of immigrants, as well as freedom
How did people stand on bilingual education versus English
There’s a lot of confusion as to what bilingual education
actually means. And that’s something that came across
in the focus groups. People were just not sure what happens
in the classroom. What people really seemed to want is that
students learn English. What they disagreed on is the best
way to do that. It’s a much more complex issue to study.
Official English seems to be a more symbolic issue. It’s
more clear what it means to make English the official language
whereas with bilingual education, there are so many models.
Do you think the movement for official English is fading?
It’s had success in over half the states, so being
successful has something to do with its fading. There is
still activity on this issue. Bills still get introduced
in Congress and the Maryland legislature just considered
making English the official state language in February 2005.
I think initiatives to end bilingual education are the next
frontier. So the policy nature of what’s getting the
most attention these days is changing.
What do you hear from Tufts students on these issues?
My students disagree with each other, and I get a whole range
of perspectives. But regardless of what they argue they
are quite thoughtful, and they all share valid concerns
about living in a society that experiences a lot of cultural
change, where people from different backgrounds have to
get along. How do you do that best? That’s what they
all want. —Lewis I. Rice