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Languages in America: A Pluralist View / Edition 2

Languages in America: A Pluralist View / Edition 2

by Susan J DickerSusan J Dicker
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The United States is and has always been an immigrant country. However, it has always demonstrated a marked ambivalence towards newcomers. In some circumstances, they are seen as welcomed contributors to a multifaceted society; in others they are viewed as interlopers usurping depleting resources which should be going to the country’s citizens. A major part of this ongoing debate centers on the languages which immigrants bring with them. For some, these new languages add to the country’s diversity; for others the new languages are seen as an inherent threat to English and the American way of life.

Languages in America: A Pluralist View is a vigorous response to this perspective by a sociolinguist and professor, Susan J. Dicker. Drawing on knowledge from the fields of linguistics, history and sociology, Dicker presents a cogent argument for language diversity in the United States. She explores the role language plays in personal and public identity. She debunks the mythology of America as a melting pot. She tackles common misconceptions about second-language learning, reveals the nativist roots of the official-English movement, and describes how other countries nurture language pluralism. Finally, Dicker asks her readers to imagine America as an open, pluralistic society in which language diversity plays an important part.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781853596513
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 10/01/2003
Series: Bilingual Education & Bilingualism Series , #42
Edition description: 2nd Edition
Pages: 370
Product dimensions: 6.09(w) x 9.22(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

Susan J. Dicker was born in New York City of multilingual immigrant parents and, growing up, regularly heard Italian, Yiddish and Spanish at home. She holds Masters of Arts degrees in Spanish and TESOL and an Ed.D. in Applied Linguistics. She is Associate Professor of English at Hostos Community College, The City University of New York, in the ethnically diverse borough of the Bronx. Her articles on language pluralism appear in The Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingüe, The Educational Forum, The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, The Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, and Education and Society.

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Language and Identity


In the first part of this chapter, some basic linguistic concepts regarding the nature of language are presented, along with examples. Language is viewed as a shaper of personal and cultural identity. Language and accents may also be the means by which one group of people culturally stereotypes another, whether the two groups speak different languages or speak variations of the same language. Language is then viewed in its role of connecting individuals to each other. As people move through their day and through their lives, changing the style of their language or changing from one language to another is a natural way to express their relationships to the people with whom they interact. Finally, language is viewed in relation to other characteristics that define individuals. Languages and accents are changeable; physical and racial traits are usually not. This is an important concept when considering the situation of immigrants who relocate to a country with a language different from their own. Acquiring proficiency in the new language may not alter the way they are seen and treated by the larger society.

The second part of the chapter applies the above concepts to a larger context: the relative status of cultures throughout the world. As a result of world history, some nations and the cultures that predominate in them have acquired greater power and prestige than others. As a consequence, the languages identified with them also acquire relative status. The discussion then focuses on the situation of non-English speakers in the United States. The low status of many of these groups derives from the low status of their countries of origin and is reflected in the low status conferred on the languages they speak. The history of the United States is marked by periods of repression of immigrant and minority languages. The most recent evidence of this repression is the current official-English movement.

Examination of the rhetoric of this movement reveals its basis in anti-bilingualism, anti-bilingual education, and a melting-pot ideology. The concerns underlying the movement are legitimate: issues of national unity, equality of opportunity, and integration. However, it is argued here that the repression of non-English languages does little to resolve the problems that have fostered these concerns.


It is not surprising that our native language is often referred to as our "mother tongue," a term that recalls our earliest memories and influences. The term itself has different meanings. The sociolinguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (1981)hypothesizes five definitions of "mother tongue" depending on who is defining it. For the sociologist, mother tongue is the language one learns first. For the linguist, it is the language one knows best. For the sociolinguist, it is the language one uses the most. For the social psychologist, it is the language one identifies with and through which one is identified. For the lay person, it is "the language one counts in, thinks in, dreams in, writes a diary in, writes poetry in" (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1981: 18).

For most Americans, there is only one language that fits all of these definitions. But a large part of the world' s population makes use of two or more languages during a lifetime. Many people grow up bilingual, perhaps because their parents are native speakers of two different languages, or because the language of their family and community differs from the regional or national language. Many others come into contact with a second or third language as a result of migration to another country. In these cases, defining one's "mother tongue" becomes more complicated. The immigrant, in particular, is often faced with a situation in which the new language begins to supplant the native one. Outside one's home and community, the new language is usually required. But in the most private of thought processes, such as the ones described in Skutnabb-Kangas' (1981) last definition, the speaker must choose between two languages. This dilemma is most acute for immigrant children, whose formative experiences are taking place in a language and culture different from the ones they have previously experienced. This is illustrated in the autobiography of the writer Eva Hoffman, who emigrated from Poland to Vancouver, Canada, at the age of 13:

As I lie down in a strange bed in a strange house – my mother is a sort of housekeeper here, to the aging Jewish man who has taken us in in return for her services – I wait for the spontaneous flow of inner language which used to be my night-time talk with myself, my way of informing the ego where the id had been. Nothing comes. Polish, in a short time, has atrophied, shriveled from sheer uselessness. Its words don't apply to my new experiences; they're not coeval with any of the objects, or faces, or the very air I breathe in the daytime. In English, words have not penetrated to those layers of my psyche from which a private conversation could proceed. (Hoffman, 1989: 107)

On her birthday, Hoffman is given a typical gift for a teenage girl, a diary. But this creates a dilemma for the young lady caught between two languages:

If I am indeed to write something entirely for myself, in what language do I write? Several times, I open the diary and close it again. I can't decide. Writing in Polish at this point would be a little like resorting to Latin or ancient Greek – an eccentric thing to do in a diary, in which you're supposed to set down your most immediate experiences and unpremeditated thoughts in the most unmediated language. Polish is becoming a dead language, the language of the untranslatable past. But writing for nobody's eyes in English? That's like doing a school exercise, or performing in front of yourself, a slightly perverse act of self-voyeurism.

Because I have to choose something, I finally choose English. If I'm to write about the present, I have to write in the language of the present, even if it' s not the language of the self. As a result, the diary becomes surely one of the more impersonal exercises of that sort produced by an adolescent girl. (Hoffman, 1989: 120–121)

This experience is not limited to immigrants. A similar dilemma faced Richard Rodriguez, a writer and lecturer of Mexican origin who grew up in a largely non-Hispanic neighborhood of Sacramento, California. He and his siblings were the only Spanish-speakers in their Catholic school. Concerned about his initial reluctance to speak English, his teachers convinced his parents to substitute their mother tongue with English when conversing with their children. The effect on Rodriguez was poignant, and echoes Hoffman's sense of loss: "The special feeling of closeness at home was diminished by then. Gone was the desperate, urgent, intense feeling of being at home; rare was the experience of feeling myself individualized by family intimates. We remained a loving family, but one greatly changed" (Rodriguez, 1982: 22–23). As Rodriguez became more proficient in English, his feeling of separation from his parents grew. Spanish was forbidden at home, but English could not replace it:

The old Spanish words (those tender accents of sound) I had used earlier – mamá and papá – I couldn't use anymore. They would have been too painful reminders of how much had changed in my life. On the other hand, the words I heard neighborhood kids call their parents seemed equally unsatisfactory. Mother and Father, Ma, Papa, Pa, Dad, Pop (how I hated the all-American sound of that last word especially) – all these terms I felt were unsuitable, not really terms of address for my parents. (Rodriguez, 1982: 24)

Indeed, the mother tongue – the language children use with those closest to them – has a deep significance for them. It is the seed of identity that blossoms as children grow. When Hoffman moved to Vancouver and learned a new language, that seed, Polish, was ignored; no one encouraged her to nurture it, to find ways of expressing her new experiences in her most intimate language. In Rodriguez's case, Spanish, the seed of his identity as a family member, was considered an impediment to his intellectual growth and his acceptance into the larger society. The pain that this caused in both cases is apparent. It is also unnecessary. In a society that accepts and nurtures pluralism, there is room for two languages; minority-language children can learn the new language required for their public identity while developing the language that defines them personally. If both languages are allowed to develop to their fullest, both may serve private and public functions.


Skutnabb-Kangas' social psychological definition of mother tongue brings out the importance of language as part of one' s cultural identity. The mother tongue is

the language through which in the process of socialization one has acquired the norms and value systems of one's own group. The language passes on the cultural tradition of the group and thereby gives the individual an identity which ties her to the in-group, and at the same time sets her apart from other possible groups of reference. ... Since this socialization process to a large extent occurs with the aid of language, language itself comes to constitute a symbolic representation of the group. (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1981: 15)

Fellow sociolinguist Joshua Fishman echoes these sentiments: "Almost all of the languages of the world have also come to stand for the particular ethnic collectivities that speak them, for the ethnocultures that traditionally utilize them and, wherewe are dealing with official languages of nations or regions, for the polities that implement them" (Fishman, 1991: 23).

That the norms and values of a culture are expressed through language becomes apparent to anyone who undertakes the task of learning a second language: this person quickly learns that word-by-word translation from one language to the other just doesn't work. The Portuguese word saudade is loosely translated as melancholy, but this word fails to capture the quality of angst (another word difficult to translate into English) that so typifies the Luzo–Brazilian persona. When the English-dominant author Louise Erdrich began studying Ojibwemowin, the Native American language last used in her family by her maternal grandfather, she learned that objects are designated as either animate or inanimate. As a result, she was forced to see the physical world in a new way: "Once I began to think of stones as animate, I started to wonder whether I was picking up a stone or it was putting itself into my hand ... I can't write about a stone without considering it in Ojibwe and acknowledging that the Anishinabe universe began with a conversation between stones" (Erdrich, 2000: E2).

Kristof (1991) gives a sampling of ways in which the Chinese culture is revealed through language. Chinese has two dozen expressions for wife, all of which connote women's various subservient roles in society; until the early part of the century, it was common for peasant women to be referred to by kinship terms instead of by given names. There are two ways of saying we, depending on whether the person addressed is being included. The words for freedom, politics, democracy, and economy are only a century old; individualism and privacy are also recent additions, although they still have a negative connotation. Thus, not only does language reflect culture, the changes it undergoes reflect the sometimes slow and painful course of change in the culture itself.

The difficulty of making connections between two languages, of bringing sense and meaning to strange new sounds, is brought to life in this passage by Eva Hoffman:

There are some turns of phrase to which I develop strange allergies. "You're welcome," for example, strikes me as a gaucherie, and I can hardly bring myself to say it – I suppose because it implies that there's something to be thanked for, which in Polish would be impolite. The very places where language is at its most conventional, where it should be most taken for granted, are the places where I feel the prick of artifice. ... The words I learn now don't stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. "River" in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. "River" in English is cold – a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke. (Hoffman, 1989: 106)


As both Skutnabb-Kangas (1981) and Fishman (1991) point out, language not only gives people a way of identifying with their cultures, but also constitutes a means by which they identify people and cultures different from their own. Hearing a language other than one's native language can trigger a set of thoughts and impressions associated with the culture to which it gives voice. Likewise, hearing one's native language spoken with a regional accent different from one's own, or hearing one's native language spoken in a variety associated with a particular sub-culture, can trigger thoughts and feelings about the people who speak that way. Language is therefore a means by which cultural stereotypes are transmitted. We will explore these two aspects of language and cultural stereotyping: people's reactions to foreign languages and foreign accents, and Americans' reactions to variations of English.

Cultural Stereotyping by Language Group

No one is immune to the phenomenon of stereotyping by language group. For many Americans, the sound of French conjures up a romantic, sophisticated Parisian scene: young lovers, sidewalk cafes, art galleries. The Russian language may trigger negative thoughts: repression, gloom, uniformity. The images of foreign cultures and minority cultures prevalent in any country are distorted by the mass media, which influences perceptions through pervasive stereotyping.

Much linguistic research has been conducted into the effect of both foreign language and foreign accent. Researchers use the matched guise technique, in which subjects listen to taped voices reading a text in two different languages or with two different accents, without being told that the same person has recorded both versions. The subjects then rate the speaker of each reading on a variety of personal characteristics. Consistently, the studies show that choice of language or accent, being the only variable factor, greatly affects the subjects' evaluations. In a Canadian study, Lambert et al. (1960) found that both English- and French-speaking college students from Montreal rated the speakers using English more favorably than those using French. In an Israeli study, Lambert et al. (1965), the ratings given by Arab and Jewish teenagers listening to bilingual speakers reflected the antagonistic relationship between the two populations: each language group gave low marks to speakers of the other language on a range of personality traits. In a study of American-accented French, Ensz (1982) found that errors in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar typical of Americans learning French negatively affected the attitudes of French listeners toward the speakers' competence, personal integrity, and social attractiveness. These studies indicate the powerful effect of language and accent on the way people judge each other.

In the United States, animosity toward Spanish-speakers is widespread; its roots can be traced to the country's imperialist relationship with Puerto Rico and the absorption of part of Mexico into the southern region of the nation. Many Americans view Spanish-speakers as second-class citizens, and the Spanish language itself has suffered negative stereotyping as a result. A 1995 custody battle exemplifies this (Gross, 1995; Verhovek, 1995). An English-dominant father requesting visitation rights with his five-year-old daughter complained that she knew very little English because her Spanish-dominant mother spoke to her mainly in Spanish. Texas judge Samuel Kiser agreed with the father, labeling the use of Spanish a form of child abuse. According to Kiser, speaking Spanish would retard the girl's educational progress when she started school, and would relegate her to life as a maid. He threatened the mother with loss of custody if she did not speak English to her child.


Excerpted from "Languages in America"
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Copyright © 2003 Susan J. Dicker.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, vii,
Introduction, viii,
1 Language and Identity, 1,
2 The Melting-Pot Mythology, 38,
3 Common Misconceptions About Language Learning, 82,
4 Languages in the Schools, 115,
5 The Modern Official-English Movement, 164,
6 Challenges to Language Restrictionism, 216,
7 Lessons in Multilingualism Beyond the United States, 257,
8 The Possibilities of a Pluralistic, Multilingual America, 300,
Epilogue, 321,
References, 323,
Index, 348,

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