Speaking of Tongues

Bilingualism is a huge advantage in today’s world. But as a policy goal, it is unrealistic. A response to Cristina Rodríguez.

By Peter Schuck

Tagged BilingualismMulticulturalism

Cristina Rodríguez has written an admirably lucid and compelling essay explaining how and why bilingualism strengthens American democracy [“E Pluribus Unum,” Issue #4]. I have no quarrel whatsoever with her claims that ongoing migration flows will replenish the already large group of Spanish speakers in the United States and that bilingualism is a desirable faculty for many economic, cultural, and other reasons, including giving “all Americans the tools to operate in a bilingual world.” I strongly agree with her position that the commentators whom she characterizes as “conservative assimilationists” sometimes exaggerate the threat to American solidarity and culture posed by Spanish speakers. And she is correct to emphasize that the power of the American cultural magnet–particularly its strong and enduring Anglophonic current, and the obvious economic incentives to learn English–is so great that the daily use of languages of descent usually peters out in the second or third generations.

Despite our substantial agreement on these points, however, I question certain elements of Rodríguez’s analysis, especially her insouciance about concerns that the great majority of Americans–liberals, moderates, conservatives, and even immigrants themselves–have regarding government-sponsored bilingualism. To be sure, she is right to think that bilingualism is good for immigrants and for American society more generally. Her late grandfather, as she explains, did her a great service in cultivating her fluency in English and Spanish. But the problem is not with the exceptionally talented children and grandchildren of immigrant doctors. It is with the vast number of immigrant children who struggle at school and are at an alarmingly high risk of becoming limited English proficiency (LEP) dropouts, forever trapped on the margins of American society. For them, the top priority must be to learn English, as well and as quickly as possible. If that can be accomplished while retaining their Spanish proficiency, then I’m all for it. (Who wouldn’t be?) But it would be cruelly misguided to ignore the real tradeoffs facing youngsters who can barely master one language, let alone two.

The virtues of bilingualism–the ability of anglophones to speak a second language–are not controversial, nor is the desirability of linguistic diversity per se. What is controversial is using government policy to make it easier for Spanish speakers to forego learning and using English in the voting booth and in other public venues. For conservative assimilationists such as John Miller and Peter Salins, this sends the wrong signal about the civic importance of mastering English well enough to communicate on public issues with the vast majority of Americans who are anglophones. Many Americans also wonder why bilingual ballots are needed for citizens who, under the law, cannot be naturalized unless they can “speak words in ordinary usage in the English language.” (The naturalization requirements for reading and writing English are even less demanding; “simple words and phrases” will suffice.) Yet in the recent battle over the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, the interests supporting bilingual ballots were strong enough to defeat the opponents who have been demanding their repeal for more than 30 years. If the assimilationists whom Rodríguez fears cannot even repeal bilingual ballots, they can hardly threaten linguistic diversity in the public square. Although she views English-only laws as evidence of assimilationists’ power and of their “impulse toward homogeneity and the suspicion of foreigners,” these laws have broad mainstream support, including from liberal Democrats, not just conservatives. As bilingualism authority Deborah Schildkraut shows, the public has fairly nuanced views on language issues: Over 70 percent favor official English, but only 35 percent favor English-only ballots. In short, public attitudes toward English’s dominant role are more complex and reasoned than Rodríguez allows.

Moreover, geopolitical realities suggest that the risk of language-based social fragmentation must be taken seriously. Bitter divisions over linguistic differences are common throughout the world, and these divisions have often led to harsh discrimination and even violence against language minorities. With an estimated 6,700 languages in the world but only 225 nation-states, such conflicts are inevitable, particularly as globalizing states seek to unify their countries linguistically. For every Switzerland, where a multiplicity of languages are spoken and officially recognized, there is a Quebec and a Belgium, where linguistic diversity actually threatens the survival of a unified polity. The treatment of anglophones in Quebec today is not a reassuring sight, nor is the perpetual discord between Flemings and Walloons in Belgium. This is emphatically not to say that linguistic diversity necessarily leads to such conflicts and repression–the United States so far is proof that this need not be the case. But these struggles form part of the context in which language policy is, and should be, debated. Surprisingly, Rodríguez does not mention them.

Where she does venture an international comparison, it is to draw a striking analogy between the debates over the Spanish language here and over the use of the veil by Muslim women in Europe. Both debates deal with national and cultural symbols, but I am more struck by the differences. American law, for example, gives broad (though not unlimited) constitutional protection to the wearing of veils, skullcaps, and other religious or ethnic symbols. In contrast, France–obsessed (not too strong a word) with its century-old tradition of laïcité and its refusal to make any significant concession to publicly-recognized ethnic differences–provides only much more limited protection for these differences (e.g., if the cross or Star of David is very small). And, as migration expert Aristide Zolberg has noted, France takes a far more monolingual stance toward integration–in part, because most of its immigrants come from the Maghreb, where French is usually both the language of instruction and the lingua franca. It does not provide for public services in other languages, except for criminal defendants, and even transitional bilingual education does not exist except, at the elementary level, as an elective subject outside of regular school hours. The United States has–so far–been much more successful than France in managing diversity in general, and the linguistic and other assimilation issues posed by immigrants (especially Muslims) in particular. Thus Rodríguez’s fear of an intolerant anglophonic monoculture is misplaced. America is simply too diverse and culturally laissez-faire for that to happen.

Focusing on the issue of bilingual education here at home, Rodríguez maintains that “as educators and policymakers focus single-mindedly on the best way to teach English, they are squandering a significant opportunity by giving scant consideration to native-language retention.” But this assumes native-language retention should be a public responsibility, the province of policymakers. Instead, the task of defining, transmitting, and retaining linguistic and cultural practices is properly the domain of families and other civil society institutions, not of government, which is at a comparative disadvantage in pursuing such controversial and normatively sensitive goals. Different families are bound to disagree about the content and even the value of linguistic-cultural maintenance. Fortunately, American public policy has, with regrettable exceptions in some bilingual education programs, adopted this privatistic model of cultural maintenance.

To be sure, the arguments over bilingual education are an amalgam of social science claims, ethnic politics, educational theory, nostalgic history, and sheer ideology. Much in this debate depends, as it should, on the details of particular programs, especially their implementation. But immigrant parents, who have the greatest stake in effective bilingual programs, have made up their minds: Their opposition is both persistent and widespread. A Public Agenda poll published in 2003 found that almost two-thirds of immigrants wanted all public school classes to be taught in English rather than having children of immigrants take some courses in their native language. This virtually mirrors the views of the general public. Polls also indicate that once California’s Proposition 227 eliminated most bilingual programs in the state’s public schools in the late 1990s, more than 60 percent of Latinos supported this change, including many who had voted against it. Surveys also indicate that Latinos overwhelmingly reject other programs that emphasize cultural maintenance.

Rodríguez’s unequivocal support for bilingual education must presuppose good, effective programs. Real world programs, however, have disserved large numbers of Hispanic schoolchildren. Consider the programs in immigrant-friendly New York City, where 15 percent of the school population–65 percent of whom are Spanish-speakers–are considered LEP. Although its bilingual and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) programs are billed as transitional, about half of the students are still in them after three years. Indeed, about 10 percent of them remain in the programs after seven years or more. Many of those who enter the school system in sixth grade or above are more proficient in English than in their parents’ tongue when they begin, but then lose their English proficiency after years of supposedly transitional classes. (It is too early to tell whether the English-only instructional methods mandated as a result of these failures will remedy this tragic situation.) Public policy should not be premised on model programs that are too seldom found in reality.

Instead, we should empower parents to decide the best way to secure English fluency for their children. To this end, I have proposed in my book Diversity in America that parents of LEP children receive publicly funded vouchers, equal in value to the special per-pupil cost of instructing LEP students, with which they could purchase any accredited English-language instruction, public or private, that they prefer to the public school’s offering. Parents who select total English immersion for their child in mainstream public school classes could use their voucher to purchase accredited supplementary ESL, tutoring, or other educational services. In addition, the government would police fraudulent providers and support basic and applied research about the effectiveness of different approaches and providers, as well as disseminate the results to parents and providers.

LEP vouchers are likely to broaden parental information and choice, tailor services more closely to individual need, enhance provider accountability, encourage lower-cost and less-politicized services, and exert salutary competitive pressure on the public schools. Almost by definition, these vouchers would target the neediest children, those most at risk of dropping out and of related problems, without spreading limited funds over the great majority of non-LEP children whose families already have more and better choices. Different families could pursue different avenues to English-language competence according to their distinctive needs and values as they see them; parents would choose precisely how much and what kind of linguistic-cultural maintenance their children should have. Vouchers also would invite competition among many potential service providers with respect to quality, cost, convenience, and other aspects of language instruction, encouraging experimentation and research on more effective methods. This last is particularly valuable in a pedagogical area in which the only expert consensus seems to be that no consensus yet exists.

One of the many paradoxes about cultural diversity in America is that a high degree of linguistic convergence is needed to nourish it. Bilingualism is desirable, but English proficiency is essential. As long as the tradeoff between them continues, the latter must be our first priority.

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Peter Schuck is the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law at Yale Law School and author of Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance.

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