Sunday, May 21, 2006

English as the official language? (paca)

I agree very much with llama (see below) that we need to think for ourselves on, well, every issue, and not assume certain "liberal" and "conservative" positions. So let's go with facts about English, English in the United States, and the impact on language use of having official languages. Unfortunately, you are not getting the most educated linguist on these issues because I don't really study language policy and planning. I just pick up some from people around me who do study it.

It might help to start with looking at the big picture of English use in the world. There are approximately 6,000 languages in the world; however, most of them are in rapid decline. One decent estimate is that about half of them or 3,000 languages will be dead by the end of the century. What it means for a language to be dead, of course, is that there are no native speakers anymore. The reasons for language death are extraordinarily complicated, but the single biggest factor is whether or not children use the language growing up. Do parents teach their child Hawaiian or Navajo or Spanish or not? When the children stop learning it, the language is dead, no matter what the policy is. There's a small cohort of linguists who travel the world doing what is called "salvage linguistics". A salvage linguist is usually working with someone, usually in their 70s and up, who is believed to be the last speaker of a language. It's essentially impossible to revive a language at that point. The linguist is simply trying to record as much of the language as possible for historical record before it is gone forever. Most languages of course are unwritten, so the linguist's few months with a speaker are all that will ever be known about that culture.

So, why do children stop learning the language that their own parents speak? It usually has something to do with social or economic prestige. Another language is viewed as the better language to speak if you want to get ahead in life. The languages which are replacing these small languages are the obvious candidates - Chinese, Indonesian, Spanish, French, Russian, and more than any of those, probably combined, English. Language communities all over the world are dropping their traditional language to speak English. Why?

One case study is in Guam, where Chamorro is the native language. Guam is a territory of the US and the US has a big military presence there. A couple decades ago people noticed that where before the number of people in Guam speaking Chamoro had been in the tens of thousands, the number of people speaking had dropped into the hundreds. The critical number is always the number of children speaking, not the number of adults, and that was dwindling to nothing. Chamorro was on the path to extinction. People concerned about this noticed that American policy actively discouraged the use of Chamorro. Everything was conducted in English; education was English only. I don't know if this was actually the case in Guam, but it is not unusual for countries to actively ban minority languages from being spoken in any public forum, such as the schoolyard. The USSR did this rampantly. Hundreds of languages are native to its territory, but only Russian was allowed in schools and the like. The reason was always to integrate these people with the nation state. Most of those languages are extinct now. There were periods in Hawaii where the same thing was done with Hawaiian. English of course was the replacement. Anyway, noticing these active prohibitions in Guam, American policy was actually changed. Restrictions on Chamorro were removed. Often such movements also come with the small language being played some on the radio or some minority language TV programming becoming available. Perhaps official documents are published bilingually in English and Chamorro.

In Guam, and it turns out to be the case generally, this didn't work. Chamorro stayed right on its path to extinction. The reason is that Chamorrans wanted a better life for their child. And in Guam where the economy is based around the American presence, the ticket to a good life is speaking English. And in a sense, the parents are right. If you want a good paying job their children needed to speak English. Until you could convince the parents that speaking Chamorro wasn't going to be a barrier to their child's happiness, you weren't going to make any progress in saving Chamorro as a native language. Now, there is something of a happy ending to the Guam story. The key is that the parents were making a false choice. It is fully possible for any healthy child to grow up bilingual. Childen, unlike adults, are language geniuses, and they quickly figure out things like, I speak Polish with my grandparents, and French with my parents, and English with all my friends at school. And there is little basis if any that speaking Polish at home has any hindrance on the child's adult competence in English. If anything, usually the home language gets dropped if the parents don't press it, because the child wants to be like his friends, not different.

I am going into all of this to give some indications concerning why people learn and abandon languages. So the question is: are there sufficient incentives to learn English in the United States? The answer is clearly yes. It simply is not possible to operate in the US as an adult outside of local communities without speaking English. This is not to say that there are not adults in the US who don't speak English and get by alright. They run shops, sit on city councils, and such. This has always been the case. People spoke French in parts of Louisiana for 200 years. You can live in San Francisco's Chinatown and only speak Cantonese. I was talking online to a man in his 60s who grew up in Niagara Falls, NY, where his first language was Italian. It is worth noting that he can hardly speak Italian now and just went to Italy as a retiree to relearn again. And this is the way things usually work in the US. To leave south Louisiana or Chinatown and get around, you must learn English. And the children almost always do. North America is in fact one of the hot beds of language extinction in the world, up there with Australia. What languages are disappearing in the US? Here is a list. Scroll down for an eye-opening listing and compare to other countries. These are almost all native American languages as you will see and all of the children in those communities are speaking English now.

Is the situation with Spanish speakers in the southwest so different that these same patterns which have repeated throughout American history will not repeat again? It's a possibility, but it is unlikely. Unless Spanish-speaking children are shut out or unless Mexican immigrants are the only people in the entire world who don't wish the best for their kids economically, the children will learn English, and English will continue as the common language for the country as it always has.

Will declaring English the official language help further this process? It's hard to see how. Parents already know that for their kids to become lawyers they have to take the bar exam in English. The benefits of speaking English are already apparent to everyone. Having Congress, on top of the natural incentives, say that English is "official" will have little impact. All it seems to really say is, "by the way, we don't like your language - officially."

Notice, however, that I have spoken almost entirely about children. It is possible that one could slightly increase English use among Spanish speaking adults with governmental policy, but the effects will be slight and probably not very long lasting if the purpose is genuine social integration. Parents will just bring their child to translate the form for them. And of course we all want to depend on a 10 year old to interpret tax documents for us. Or they will sign a form not knowing really what it says. Think about your two years of French or Spanish or German or whatever and what level your language was at after that time. Now compare that to reading a legal document in that language or defending yourself in court in that language. No way, right? If you want every adult in the US to understand English at that level, you are asking for them to study for at least 4-5 years. While they are driving from California farm to California farm harvesting for the grape season. It's not going to happen.

No, if the important thing is to have some language as a common language for the large majority of citizens, so that they are truly competent in it, you have to make sure the children are learning and not worry about the parents. For the parents, you make sure they can do well enough to provide opportunities for their child. I don't see any vote in Congress helping children in this process.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi. I live in Guam. Guam is the 51st American state in everything but name. Guam's major industry is tourism. Guam is loaded with world class hotels. The majority of tourists are Japanese, but there are also many Koreans and Chinese tourists as well. You should visit Guam. Visit Guam, USA, today! Sometimes foreigners come to Guam just to give birth, so that their child will be born with American citizenship. The way citizenship works in America, is that if you are born in America, you automatically have American citizenship. This scheme is particular popular with Koreans who want "Born in America" babies.