Spanish, English and the New Nativism

By Dennis Baron

Linguistic nativism Š the kind that says, ŅSpeak English or go back where you came fromÓ Š is a long-standing and regrettable American tradition. ItÕs also unnecessary. No matter how hard minority language speakers work to preserve their speech, they face an inexorable shift to English. That was true of German in the past, and itÕs true of Spanish today. Eighteenth-century nativists like Benjamin Franklin accused German Americans of taking jobs away from English workers, of speaking a debased dialect of their own language, and of refusing to learn English. Franklin considered Germans Ņswarthy,Ó not white like the English. Other Anglos accused the Pennsylvania Germans of laziness, illiteracy, clannishness, a reluctance to assimilate, excessive fertility, and Catholicism. They were even blamed for the severe Pennsylvania winters. But it wasnÕt long before the Germans, and just about everyone else who didnÕt speak English, abandoned their heritage languages. Some became Protestant. Some, if they could, even became white.

Today there is a popular perception that English, the language that dominates the entire world, is endangered at home. The new nativists see Spanish as the enemy. They are wrong: while Spanish has eclipsed German as the leading minority language spoken in this country, the 2000 Census reports that 92% of all Americans over five years old have no difficulty speaking English.

But Americans who speak only English, as most do, tend to see other languages as threats. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the governor of Iowa, in his own version of the Patriot Act, struck out at the German enemy, forbidding the use of any foreign language in public: on the street, in churches, even on the phone. IowaÕs German population switched to English. But fearing a Spanish invasion -- the number of Hispanics in Iowa doubled between 1990 and 2000 -- in 2002 Iowa became the twenty-seventh state to make English its official language. However English in Iowa needs no protection: only 2.9% of IowaÕs population are Spanish speakers, and over half of them speak English very well.

English is as secure now as the language of American government, education, and commerce as itÕs been since the first British invasion of Virginia and New England in the seventeenth century. But HarvardÕs Samuel P. Huntington is only the latest scare monger to argue otherwise. In the current issue of Foreign Policy, Huntington warns that Ņthe values, institutions, and cultureÓ of the creators of America Š white Protestant speakers of English Š are rapidly losing ground to multiculturalism and diversity. Adding academic cachet to the new nativism that calls Miami a foreign country and the American Southwest, North Mexico, Huntington laments that Hispanic immigrants, unlike other groups, retain their heritage language and pose a threat not just to English, but to American stability. He warns that the only way for Hispanics to buy into America without tearing it apart is to learn English: ŅThere is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.Ó  [ŅThe Hispanic Challenge,Ó Foreign Policy (March/April, 2004), pp. 30-45].

Huntington concedes that America no longer defines itself as exclusively white and Protestant, but he insists that the Anglo-Protestant creed, the American dream embodied in the English of JeffersonÕs Declaration of Independence and the other founding documents, is something that non-English speakers are just not going to understand. Languages around the world carry the burdens of national or religious ideology, and English is no exception: itÕs the language of representative democracy, of global capitalism, of rock ŌnÕ roll. But that doesnÕt mean that freedom, business and music canÕt be expressed in other languages as well.

Huntington, who could as easily be writing about Germans two hundred years ago in Pennsylvania, objects that Hispanics are different from other immigrants to the U.S.: too many come illegally; they concentrate their settlement regionally; they donÕt value education; they donÕt marry nonhispanics; they have a high fertility rate; their economic status remains low; and they donÕt buy homes. And unlike other groups, they oppose official-English laws. Even when their socioeconomic status improves, Huntington charges, Hispanics hold on to Spanish, slowing their educational progress and ultimately, their assimilation.

Huntington is convinced that if America doesnÕt remain Anglo-Protestant and English-speaking, it will divide, becoming Anglo and Hispanic. He suggests shutting off Mexican immigration to solve the language problem, facilitate assimilation, and preserve the union. A newly-diverse immigrant community, rather than the current predominantly-Spanish-speaking one, would once again adopt English as a common denominator, and the nation could return to normal.

But English, already the common denominator, has never been the undisputed property of Anglo-Protestants. ItÕs a language that started out in heathen Europe, traveled to Celtic Britain, was leavened with the Latin of Irish monks, the Norse of Viking raiders, and the French of Normans bent on regime change. Even during the brief Anglo-Protestant moment of Shakespeare and King James, English swelled with borrowings from Latin, Italian, and Spanish. Modern English has absorbed words from Arabic, Hebrew, Navaho, Yiddish, Polish, Hindi, Bantu, and a host of others. In turn the British, and later the Americans, exported English around the globe, where local varieties of the language have gone native. In short, English is culturally diverse enough to make HuntingtonÕs Anglo-Protestant ideal citizen switch to Klingon.

Meanwhile, back home, even with the continuing influx of Spanish speakers to the U.S., Hispanic Americans are losing their Spanish, many of them by the second generation, considerably faster than the language loss of pre-World War I immigrants. Hispanic American adults enroll in Spanish classes not because they have kept their language, as Huntington insists, but because they are losing it. Their children take special heritage-language Spanish classes for the same reason: loyalty to a language being eclipsed by English. And they object to official-English laws like IowaÕs not because they want to keep on speaking Spanish. ItÕs not the law that drives out the language, but subtle social and economic pressure. Hispanics object to official English legislation Š as all Americans should Š because such laws say, ŅWe donÕt want you here.Ó

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois