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Summer 2005
“It’s not clear whether you should have an official language, or be welcoming of multiple languages, or have both an official language while accommodating
other languages.”

photo by David Carmack
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.

Who 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 other languages.

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 us.

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 another.

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 of speech.

How did people stand on bilingual education versus English immersion?
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