The equanimity with which Americans have watched their freedoms flee puzzles many of us, but perhaps I’ve solved the mystery: they’re too busy worrying about the English language instead. They fear its imminent expiration, however exaggerated reports of that death may be. Some blame rap music, text-messaging, or state-enforced “education” for English’s demise; many fault immigrants. After all, these newcomers often cling to their native tongues and traditions instead of assimilating by learning English. This allows Americans to conclude that English is a fragile waif as endangered as Lady Liberty. And they want government to defend her. In June 2005, Zogby International found that 79 percent of Americans approve making English the official language of the United States.
That’s enough of a plurality to support several organizations. One is U.S. English, founded in 1983 by the late S. I. Hayakawa, a semanticist and one-time U.S. senator from California. It boasts 1.8 million members and lobbies to enshrine English as America’s “official” language, by which it means that “official government business at all levels must be conducted solely in English.” Another association, Pro-English, “work[s] through the courts and in the court of public opinion to defend English’s historic role as America’s common, unifying language, and to persuade lawmakers to adopt English as the official language at all levels of government.”
Both groups bravely and vehemently object to the infamous “Executive Order 13166. Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency.” President Bill Clinton foisted this on the nation in August 2000 when he fretted lest folks who weren’t fluent in English forgo their share of federal freebies. The order requires both Leviathan’s agencies and “recipients of Federal financial assistance,” such as hospitals, schools, and colleges, to “ensure that the programs and activities they normally provide in English are accessible to LEP [limited English proficiency] persons and thus do not discriminate on the basis of national origin in violation of title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Thanks to its unconstitutional presumptions, let alone its vague and expansive wording, this spawn of the Civil Rights Act may have wreaked as much harm as its parent. Complying with its open-ended orders has cost taxpayers billions. For example, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles alone pays $2.2 million annually in translating costs. Thirty states now limit such damage with “official English” laws. And while economic self-defense seems to require these measures, a far better response is to shrink and defang government. We ought to prohibit it from interfering in our lives rather than allowing it to ensure that every serf understands its dictates and snits.
Most Americans who tout “official English” conflate the concept with “Americanization.” They not only want immigrants to speak English; they also expect them to assimilate. Conservative activist and ex-bureaucrat Linda Chavez recently advocated “giv[ing] priority to immigrants” who want to live here when they “already speak English, since this is a key factor in their successful integration into American society.” Furthermore, “successful assimilation should be the goal of US immigration policy.”
No doubt Ms. Chavez believes her former employer, the federal government, should decide which immigrants will best assimilate—a vague term with different definitions for different people. She chillingly advises, “We could also give priority admission to immigrants willing to serve in the US military. . . .”
Distrust of Immigrants
Whatever they mean by “assimilation,” Americanizers distrust immigrants who persist in their native customs while living among their kindred and countrymen in a bewildering new land. U.S. English warns that “the lack of an assimilation policy for immigrants to the United States is rapidly changing the successful integration ways of the past. Gone are the days of the American Dream and the upwardly mobile society for immigrants. In its place are low expectations and government policies that encourage Americans to learn the language of the immigrants, instead of the other way around.”
Pro-English also bundles speaking English with assimilation. It blames mandatory “multilingualism” for “causing a growing underclass, which is segregated and walled off into linguistic ghettos. A century ago such immigrant ghettos were marked by extreme poverty, 80-hour workweeks and child labor.” Though we might credit liberty for unleashing the innovations and technology that ended those hardships, Pro-English instead praises “mandatory public education and reduced immigration” because they allowed the “successful assimilation of ethnic communities into American society.” It also extols those long-ago immigrants for realizing that “language skills were the key to entering the emerging ‘middle class.’ ” If only modern migrants were as astute.
Yet the politicians of that halcyon age saw immigrants as anything but cooperative and compliant. In fact, they frequently castigated them for spurning English “language skills” and the “emerging ‘middle class,’ ” that is, assimilation. Yesteryear’s officials complained as much as today’s Americans about newcomers who stubbornly preferred their own language and lifestyle—so much that contemporary Americanizers still quote them approvingly. One of their favorites is the neoconservative icon Theodore Roosevelt.
On January 3, 1919, the former president wrote to the American Defense Society as its honorary head. This letter of regret at missing one of the Society’s events became his last public statement; he died three days later. The rich, retired ruler didn’t blush at beating up on people fleeing persecution, disease, war, and wretched poverty: “In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else. . . . But this is predicated upon the man’s becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American.”
That would be news to the Founding Fathers, who recognized our rights as “inalienable,” endowed with our humanity and independent of anything we say or do. Nor does it matter whether immigrants are—or aren’t—good for America. Whether they depress labor markets, enlist in the armed forces, or pay more in taxes than they send home to impoverished families is all irrelevant. Immigrating and emigrating are natural rights belonging to individuals; whether immigrants benefit a nation is as immaterial as whether free speech does. Governments may not restrict a person’s freedom to speak his mind—in whatever language he pleases—and they may not restrict his freedom of movement. Those that do are tyrannies.
But Roosevelt disdained natural rights and a government too limited to threaten them. His letter next attacked freedom of association.
“If [an immigrant] tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn’t doing his part as an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag . . . and we have room for but one, soul loyalty, and that loyalty is to the American people.” (Many commentators excuse “soul” as a typo for “sole”—but we’ll accept the sentence as he wrote it.)
Joining the president in his preoccupation with immigrants’ souls was Louis Brandeis, future Supreme Court justice. On July 4, 1915, Brandeis decreed, “However great his outward conformity, the immigrant is not Americanized unless his interests and affections have become deeply rooted here. And we properly demand of the immigrant even more than this—he must be brought into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations and cooperate with us for their attainment. Only when this has been done will he possess the national consciousness of an American.”
Naturally, good Americans speak English. Even if an immigrant “adopt[ed] the clothes, the manners and the customs generally prevailing here,” he was only a “superficial” American in Brandeis’s opinion. “Far more important is . . . when he substitutes for his mother tongue the English language as the common medium of speech.” Roosevelt emphatically agreed. The 48-state union of 2,917,652 square miles that he judged too tiny for multiple flags and loyalties couldn’t accommodate multiple languages, either: “We have room for but one language here and that is the English language. . . .”
State Compulsion for English
Roosevelt also advocated compulsory English education. In 1916 he declared, “Let us say to the immigrant not that we hope he will learn English, but that he has got to learn it. Let the immigrant who does not learn it go back. He has got to consider the interest of the United States or he should not stay here.”
Talk about setting a high bar! If we’re going to eject residents who consider their own interests instead of the country’s, let’s begin with politicians and bureaucrats.
When either group grouses that immigrants must learn English, they mean that Leviathan will teach it to them. Requiring English in 21st-century America implies that government will operate centers to teach it; U.S. English believes that “teaching newcomers English is one of the strongest acts of inclusion our government can provide.” And Pro-English cites another poll from Zogby in which “78% of Americans believe that the government should do more to help immigrants learn English.” It’s too bad 78 percent of Americans don’t realize that “helping immigrants” helps the state far more: it benefits from yet another program, with more jobs to dispense and taxes to collect, as well as the chance to indoctrinate victims.
There are the demagogic advantages, too, of pitting people against one another: Politicians encourage natives to fear newcomers with their incomprehensible languages and to turn to government for protection. Roosevelt exploited those fears on July 4, 1917, when he implied that God alone knew what treason German immigrants were plotting: “During the present war all newspapers published in German, or in the speech of any of our foes, should be required to publish, side by side with the foreign text, columns in English containing the exact translation of everything said in the foreign language. Ultimately this should be done with all newspapers published in foreign languages in this country.”
Ninety years later the same attitude flourishes, though with even less excuse. The justification this time is not that a warring nation must know what those sneaky foreigners are plotting, but that red-blooded Americans aren’t comfortable confronting the unfamiliar. New York City Councilman and mayoral candidate John Avella represents a district of multiple ethnicities in Queens. He has repeatedly attacked his Korean constituents for posting Korean signs advertising their Korean shops to Korean customers. “I don’t think there’s racism here,” Avella averred in 2004, “but people [as opposed to Koreans?] really feel discriminated against when they suddenly see a store sign in the neighborhood they grew up in, and can’t understand it. The obvious response is to say, ‘They don’t want me in their store; they don’t want me here.’ ”
And the obvious response from a politician is to say, “There oughta be a law.” So it’s no surprise Avella announced “he was preparing a bill requiring all signs in the city to be ‘at least half in English.’” This inversion of Executive Order 13166 went far enough that a councilman who opposed it, John Liu, led a task force that surveyed 293 businesses in the suspect neighborhood. It concluded that only 5 percent of the signs included no English—though another 12 percent boasted some English words without actually describing the shop. Those inscrutable immigrants are a wily bunch.
Government and Xenophobia
Xenophobia seems to be part of the human condition. Newcomers have always struggled with the suspicion and dislike most people harbor for those who look, act, or speak differently. The federal government endorsed these dark emotions in the 1870s, when the Supreme Court discovered a constitutional “interest” in immigration. Curiously, the feds had somehow overlooked that “interest” for the nation’s first century. It’s even more curious that despite pressure from Westerners who resented the cheap Chinese workers flooding their states, the Court couldn’t come up with the constitutional clause concerning this “interest,” either. The justices compensated by citing “national sovereignty” and other euphemisms for “wink-wink-the-Constitution-actually-prohibits-federal-interference-here-but-who-cares?”
Meanwhile, with the rise of the welfare state, immigrants’ alleged greed for “public services” has also earned Americanizers’ wrath. They forward emails (“WAKE-UP FOLKS. A REAL EYE OPENER”) warning that “$12 Billion a year is spent on primary and secondary school education for children here illegally and they cannot speak a word of English.” The eye-openers rightly resent Leviathan’s theft of our money to brainwash kids, but where those children were born and what they speak are irrelevant to that crime.
Rather than immigrants, Americanizers ought to attack government for sponsoring the programs—public schools, Social Security, food stamps, Medicaid—they claim newcomers abuse. (Our friends are on thin ice here: Every study proving that immigrants disproportionately abuse the taxpayers’ largess has an equal and opposite study crowning born-and-bred Americans as welfare kings and queens.) When the state dangles free money in front of people, almost everyone will grab it, regardless of nationality or citizenship.
The reality also differs from the stereotype regarding English. Most immigrants want to learn English and struggle valiantly to do so. Common sense tells them that communicating with employers and clients is requisite for prospering in their new home. A Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation poll in 2002 reported that 90 percent of Latinos believe Latino immigrants must learn English to succeed here. Yet Americanizers slander immigrants as too stubborn and unpatriotic to bother. Jingoists who have never tried to master a foreign language themselves apparently forget that children pick up new lingo far more easily than adults do. Older immigrants who aren’t verbally facile strain to understand English, let alone speak it; they may want to learn it every bit as much as the Americanizers want them to. There’s added incentive if they need to converse with other immigrants who don’t come from their country or sometimes even their particular region: people newly arrived from China have to learn English if they expect to do business with their Mexican neighbors.
English also enjoys cachet as an international language, the patois of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, rock music, and Hollywood’s glitter. Plus it’s easier than other languages, with straightforward, uninflected grammar. Philip Sidney rejoiced in 1598 that English is “void of those cumbersome differences of cases, moods, genders and tenses, which I think was a piece of the tower of Babylon’s curse that a man should be put to school to learn his mother tongue.” Kids immediately grasp this. When I asked a little girl born in New York City to Spanish-speaking parents which language she uses with her Hispanic friends, she gave me a look that showed how dumb my question was. “English, a course,” she said. “It’s faster.” Life’s an exciting whirl when you’re six years old; who has time to spout ten Spanish words when only three or four English ones convey the same idea?
The Paternalism of Americanizers
But none of these advantages deflect the Americanizers from enforcing English. They often cloak their insistence with the excuse that they want to help new citizens take advantage of all America offers. (“Illegal” immigrants are another matter. The only help Americanizers would spare them is a ticket home. People who hope to live in the land of the free must first obtain a bureaucrat’s permission.) If newcomers are too stupid to understand their own best interests, Americanizers stand ready to assist them—by force, if necessary.
But why measure patriotism with language? How does vernacular determine devotion to the American ideals of liberty, private property, and equality under law? The Americanizers, with their faith in compulsion, betray freedom far more than the non-English-speaking immigrant.
Language is a deeply personal trait that shapes the very way we think. No wonder the state tries to insinuate itself here—which makes it all the more imperative that we grant government no say in something so subjective, essential, and vital. Encouraging immigrants to speak their native tongues at home, as the Los Angeles Unified School District did in the 1990s, is every bit as offensive as forcing them to speak English. (We won’t even start on bilingual education in Leviathan’s schools: Why inveigh against that detail when the whole structure is rotten?) If we must have a government, its sole purpose is to protect our rights to life, liberty, and property; it has no place promoting one language over another. Lovers of liberty should object strenuously each time the state intrudes in this area, whether on behalf of English or any other tongue.
John Milton wrote in Areopagitica that English is “the language of men ever famous and foremost in the achievements of liberty.” Let’s keep it that way.