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Minority Report

Human history can be viewed as what happens when groups of people speaking different languages encounter one another. The result isn’t always pretty: language contact can lead to mutual understanding but also social conflict. Although it’s the speakers who unite or clash, language often symbolizes what unites or divides people — and linguistic minorities often find their right to use their native language severely restricted by laws requiring the majority language in all sorts of situations.

In the U.S., diversity tends to give way to one common language: English

The United States is founded on diversity and difference. In religion and ethnicity, we are a composite people. However, when it comes to language, diversity tends to give way to one common language: English. And although the very title Do You Speak American? suggests the broadness of American speech, there have always been Americans who feel that if you don’t speak the “American” language, you may not really be an American.

Americans initially accepted French in Louisiana and Spanish in California and the Southwest territories, but soon began requiring English-only in all public transactions. Government policy initially eradicated Native American languages, but has recently switched — in an effort that may come too late — to try to preserve them and encourage growth. Similarly, depriving African slaves of their linguistic roots was one way of controlling them.

Language loss is common for immigrants to the United States. During the pre-World War I waves of immigration from non-English-speaking countries, it was common for second-generation speakers to be bilingual in English and the language of the land they came from, and the third generation to be monolingual English speakers, unable to converse with their grandparents. There is some evidence that the switch to English has speeded up since the 1960s, skipping the bilingual middle generation altogether. Parents are monolingual in Spanish or Hmong or Ukrainian. Their children speak only English.

American schools have never dealt comfortably with their non-Anglophone students. In the 19th century, bilingual schooling was common, particularly in the heavily German areas of the Midwest. As immigration increased, public schools shifted overwhelmingly to English as the language of instruction. The Americanization movement of the early 1900s reinforced assimilation to English, often punitively. But there was no concerted effort to teach these students how to speak English. It should not be surprising that in this sink-or-swim environment, many students simply sank: More than half of students dropped out at the height of the great wave of Eastern European immigration.

Teddy Roosevelt warned the U.S. was in danger of becoming a polyglot boarding house

Teddy Roosevelt once warned that the United States was in danger of becoming a polyglot boarding house. Instead we became a nation of monolingual English speakers. Language teachers tell a joke: What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

Immigration reforms in the 1960s brought an influx of speakers of Spanish, as well as Russian and a variety of Asian languages — yet English continues to dominate the United States. In the 1970s, court-ordered bilingual education attempted to deal with the problems faced by minority-language speakers in the schools. Ideally, such programs use the students’ native languages to instruct them in basic subjects (reading, writing, math, science and social studies) so that they don’t fall behind while they get up to speed in English.

Highly effective when done well, bilingual education has been controversial because many people fear the programs are designed to preserve minority language, not to teach children English. California voters recently rejected bilingual education in favor of English immersion programs. Supporters of bilingual education fear that this reduction in language support services that signals a step back to the isolationism of the early 20th century.

Americans will continue to face issues of assimilation and minority language rights. Opponents of immigration see the English language as endangered and call for laws to make English the nation’s official language. Still, the U.S. Census has reported for several decades that English is spoken by 95 percent or more of U.S. residents. Although bilingualism may be on the rise, the children of non-English-speaking immigrants are abandoning their heritage languages, becoming monolingual speakers of English with record speed.

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