Saying “Tla” to English-Only – How Aggressive Majority Language Policies Threaten Native Culture

by multilingualmania on September 7, 2010

in Anti-Bilingualism, Bilingual Politics, Bilingualism, History, Language Policy, Language Suppression, Linguistic Discrimination

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Albert EinsteinAs of the 2006 Census, over 55 million people aged five and above spoke a language other than English at home. That’s nearly 20% of the population. Yet, a growing English-only movement wants to change that. Advocates of English-only language policies maintain that multiculturalism erodes national unity and that an emphasis on English provides more opportunities for immigrants to achieve success. Critics argue that a pro-English agenda leads to cultural repression and essentially sanctions institutional discrimination against non-English speakers, producing an effect tantamount to “language genocide.”

Having worked with minority language speakers in the United States as well as Latin America, I have to admit that I side with critics of the English-only agenda. In my experience, not only do pro-majority language policies subordinate minority speakers, they hearken back to that dark period of American history (North, Central, and South American history, to be specific) when colonization bred brutal assimilation practices that stain our history books with shame. Just as colonization literally led to the decimation of entire minority populations across two continents, modern day language colonization threatens to do the same to minority languages.

Scholars estimate that Native Americans once spoke upwards of 300 indigenous languages. Today, only 175 of these languages remain and the Indigenous Language Institute predicts that, in the absence of concerted restoration efforts, as few as 20 tribal languages will survive to 2050. The skeptic merely has to look to the United States’ northern and southern neighbors, Canada and Mexico, to witness this theory in action. In Canada, the amount of fluent speakers of indigenous languages has dropped by 95% over the last century. And, of Mexico’s 63 officially recognized indigenous languages (linguists estimate that the number is closer to 350) more than one third are in immediate jeopardy of extinction. The Zoque language, for example, only has two living speakers, who recently made headlines when a rift between the two Mexican men caused them to stop talking.

Do you see a pattern? I do. The United States, Canada, and Mexico all have one key thing in common: aggressive pro-majority language policies that echo periods of widespread assimilation, subjugation, and, even, slaughter of minority language speakers. Creating a majority language policy was one way that colonial leaders “civilized” and controlled the natives they encountered while building their stolen empires. In a 1995 article for the Anthropology & Education Quarterly, Heather Blair and Shirley Fredeen wrote that, “The colonial powers saw language as one of the most potent forms of invasion and established educational and language policies that would ensure the primacy of one language.” They did this by shaming and punishing “rebellious” and “disobedient” minority language speakers: a method that far outlasted colonialism. In Canada, up until as recently as 1996, indigenous children were funneled into residential assimilation schools where they were forbidden to speak in their mother tongue, even when socializing. Blair and Freeden explain that “it was the job of the school to eradicate Indian languages.”

In the United States today, pro-English pushers are much more subtle in their tactics. English-only language programs directed at minority language speakers seem innocent enough; their advocates stress that such programs prepare students for “success” in American society. However, the consequence is that hundreds of historical languages are fading fast as fewer young people choose to speak them, convinced that minority languages are useless, obsolete, and, even, shameful. In an interview with the New York Times, Chief Harry Wallace of the Unkechaug Nation explained that language is the central way that indigenous people understand their culture. “For many tribes language is a cultural glue that holds a community together, linking generations and preserving a heritage and values.” According to Wallace, once a language disappears, it isn’t long until the culture to which it belongs begins to lose shape.

Last I checked, the Declaration of Independence affirmed that all people are created equal, not just English speakers. Enforcing English-only language policies in our schools and in society at large prepares minority speakers for success only as long as successful people are defined by their homogeneity and ability to repress their unique culture, language, and history. Is this the type of “success” we want for America’s children? For me, the answer is Tla (the Cherokee word for “No!”).


About the Author: Rachael Kay Albers is a freelance writer, English teacher, and theater facilitator working to educate and empower indigenous women in Central America. In her spare time, she loves to maintain and improve her bilingualism by reading novels and watching movies in Spanish.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

kate kiss September 9, 2010 at 8:17 am

I would like to hear from an advocate of “English-only” what they are afraid of? Why is language so intimately identified with culture that people in the USA feel threatened by people who speak additional languages to English? (Since speaking additional languages does not imply that a person cannot or does not speak English. There is a time and a place for everything, including each of a person’s langauges.) What is wrong with speaking two or more languages? How could that undermine the political establishment? Anyway, what does “English” culture actually mean in the USA? I suppose there is an unconscious awareness that ” once a language disappears, it isn’t long until the culture to which it belongs begins to lose shape” – Chief Harry Wallace as cited in the article).
So why is that? Why is language such a powerful vehicle of culture that once it disappears the “culture” goes with it?

Sarah September 22, 2010 at 12:19 pm

This is very sad but true. I think that while people have to learn English in order to feel more welcome they don’t have to forget about their language. As soon as they move to another country, that first language might be the only thing that links them to their own culture back home. The English-only advocates don’t understand that.

Alex May 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm

I have discovered that angry looks are common whenever I speak German with my mom, and that kids around me seem to be anti – multilingual , as it is “uncool”. I know a trilingual who very rarely will speak Spanish or French with her family.

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