Language, bilingual education and balkanization

The following articles reflect on the ramifications of multi-lingualism in the United States.

One Reporter's Opinion – Press '1' for English, by George Putnam,, July 8, 2005

It is this reporter's opinion that to be eligible for naturalization, an applicant must be required to read, write and speak basic English. This requirement has more or less fallen by the wayside, yet every poll I have seen reveals that between 80 percent and 90 percent of those polled vote for that requirement.

...S.I. Hayakawa has said, "A common language is the glue that holds a people and a nation together."

Michael Savage, when asked what keeps us united, answered, "Our common English language." And he emphasizes on every program: "Borders, Language, Culture."

Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm has said: "A nation is much more. It is a state of mind, a shared vision, a recognition that we are all in this together. A nation needs a common language as it needs a common currency."

The scholar Seymour Lipset has said, "The histories of bilingual and bicultural societies that do not assimilate point to histories of turmoil, tension and tragedy." As example: Canada, Belgium, Malaysia and Lebanon....

As Gov. Lamm puts it, "The invaders are attempting to turn America into a bilingual, multilingual and bicultural country. We are adding a second underclass – unassimilated, undereducated and antagonistic – to our population."

Lamm cites the ancient Greeks, who believed they belonged to the same race, possessed a common language and literature, worshipped the same gods, yet these bonds were not strong enough to overcome two factors: local patriotism and geographical conditions. Greece fell because it put the emphasis on the "PLURIBUS" instead of the "UNUM."...

President Teddy Roosevelt, in 1915, said it best: "There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities."...

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It is a Blessing for an Individual to be Bilingual; It is a Curse for a Society to be Bilingual, by Richard D. Lamm

I signed the original Bilingual Education Bill in Colorado and believed in its goal, which was to teach Spanish-speaking students English. I believe that the evidence coming out of California and Arizona deserves thoughtful consideration and debate now that Ron Unz has got the issue on the ballot. But there is one argument that I believe is not only false, but also dangerous. It is said because it is an advantage for an individual to be bilingual that it is also an asset for a society to be bilingual.

I suggest while it is a blessing for an individual to be bilingual, it is a curse for a society to be bilingual. Individuals are bilingual in a range of languages and it only enriches them and it is true that our Contential nation is linguistically illiterate. Societies, however, are generally bilingual in two competing and nation-dividing languages.

The Southwest, and to a lesser extent, the whole nation, is in danger of backing into becoming a bilingual nation without debate or forethought. This seems to me to be a grave mistake. I look around the world in vain for an example of where bilingual nations live in peace with themselves.

One scholar, Seymour Martin Lipset, put it this way:

The histories of bilingual and bicultural societies that do not assimilate are histories of turmoil, tension, and tragedy. Canada, Belgium, Malaysia, Lebanon-all face crises of national existence in which minorities press for autonomy, if not independence. Pakistan and Cyprus have divided. Nigeria suppressed an ethnic rebellion. France faces difficulties with its Basques, Bretons, and Corsicans.

A nation is much more than a place on a map. It is a state of mind, a shared vision, and a recognition that we are all in this together. A nation needs a common language as it needs a common currency. You have to share something with your neighbors beside a zip code. We need many things to tie us together, but one indispensable element must be that we all speak one common language.

Just as a citizen can't pay their bills with Pesos or Euros, so also a nation needs to share its joys and discuss its issues and problems in a common language. Immanuel Kant once said, "language and religion are the dividers." It is the glory of America that religion no longer separates us, but I suggest that language is a much deeper and more intractable separating factor.

America has been successful because we have become one people. There is a "social glue" of a common language, a shared history, uniting symbols that tie us together. We live under a common flag, which we honor, and salute.

Nations need cultural ties that bind also. That culture was not fixed in cement with the arrival of the Pilgrims, but is always changing and evolving. We can remember Cinqo de Mayo as we do Saint Patrick's Day and October fest and we can buy more salsa that catsup without endangering our national soul. But we must avoid becoming a Hispanic Quebec; we must stay one people and one nation.

Current immigration patterns are different from our historical experience in three important respects. Immigration historically was a mix of many nations and languages; now it it over half from Spanish speaking countries and in many parts of the country you can live your entire life without speaking English. Second, immigrants historically came from great distances and had to throw themselves into a new nation; today people can spend every vacation in their home country and hold dual citizenship. Mexican immigrants can now vote for both George Bush and Vicente Fox. Thirdly, immigration pressures were mitigated by significant periods of little or no immigration which gave the melting pot a chance to melt. Today we take in four times the historic rate of immigrants without pause.

Some people say Switzerland is an example of a bilingual country, but that claim does not survive close scrutiny. Switzerland has divided its geography into three separate areas, each of which has a common and dominant language -- one French, one German, and one Italian.

America took in many races, religions and nationalities and made them one nation. Let us debate the best methods of teaching English to our children but let us be careful with our metaphors. It is a significant asset for an individual to be bilingual, but a path of conflict and tension to have a bilingual nation.

Richard D. Lamm is former governor of Colorado >A version of this article was published in the Rocky Mountain News under the title One nation, one tongue, August 8, 2002.


Bilingual Deception, by Al Knight, The Denver Post, October 13, 2002

Failed educational programs, like bilingual instruction, have no right to eternal life. Coloradans have every right to dictate how taxes should be spent and can rest assured that it is entirely possible to have parental choice, local control of education and Amendment 31 all at the same time.

"The sponsors of Amendment 31 included language that makes individual teachers and administrators financially liable if they grant, "in error," the request of parents who ask to have their children enrolled in bilingual classes. This is not, as opponents suggest, a Draconian provision. The amendment is clear. Exceptions to "English immersion" are to be rare. Only three categories of students can request a waiver. Administrators, school board members and teachers can easily avoid problems by following the law.... Importantly, without some enforcement provisions, administrators, board members and teachers would be virtually invited to undermine the intent of the amendment."

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Teach 'em in Spanish. Why not in Chinese, or Vietnamese?, by Charles L. King, September 12, 2002.

"After three to five to seven years of so-called 'bilingual education,' far too many students --most, I dare say-- emerge after years essentially illiterate in English. A common language is the basis, the foundation, for national cultural identity, an identity essential to national unity in any country. Multi-lingual nations, such as India, or an officially bilingual nation, such as Canada and Belgium, are divided nations...

Immigrants who come here to enjoy our economic prosperity must--for their good and our good as a people with a common socio-cultural-political heritage, learn English. As Americans we, of course, respect their culture. But by the same token we have every right to expect them to respect ours. Unless immigrants learn the most intimate expression of our culture, the English language, they will always feel estranged from us...

We have no obligation whatsoever to teach immigrants or their children here the language (Spanish in almost every case, though there were speakers of 327 other languages living in the United States, according to the 1990 Census ) of the country from which they emigrated; that was the obligation of their home countries.