English Dictionaries. Photo by John Keogh. http://tinyurl.com/p5dlnfg

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On Language, Diversity, and Heritage

“But you don’t sound like you’re from the South.” This is always the first thing people say when they find out that I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. I drop references to magnolias or humidity, trying to disarm the skepticism, the implicit questioning of my identity. As the daughter of Yankee and Canadian transplants, I was raised in a linguistic environment full of contradictions. From an early age, I scrutinized language the same way my brothers and I watched the lightning bugs we’d collect in jars—with limitless attention, curiosity, and delight. I loved to imitate accents and play with pronunciation. The way my teachers said “sorry”—it sounded like “sawry”—was deliciously different from the way my dad said “Oops, sorey” in his Canadian accent. I remember arguing with my brother over which version was better, singing back and forth: “Sawry!” “Sorey!” “Sawry!” “Sorey!” My brother Liam sounds like a true porch-sittin’, sweet tea–drinkin’ Memphis boy, while I speak like I am from everywhere and nowhere, a language chameleon. It confuses some people, those who think that an accent is an inherited and immutable part of who you are and where you’re from. I believe that language is a series of choices, conscious and unconscious, shaped by factors that are personal, social, and political. I left Memphis for college in Vermont and lived in Massachusetts and South Carolina before settling into my teaching career in Boston. During the first few years when I visited home, my mother would often shoo me upstairs to dig around in closets and under beds with the order: make two piles—decide what to keep, and what to let go. I think this same process, over time, has shaped how I speak. Out of the swirl of dialects, some things get picked up. Others are left behind.

This is how we build our heritage. We make decisions about what to hang on to, what to preserve of our history and culture—the values, traditions, symbols, and, yes, language, that define what it means to be American. Our nation has long been mired in controversy over its linguistic heritage—a conflict that I stepped into when I became a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL). How should American schools educate students who speak a language other than English? The debate, which goes back to the nineteenth century, divides those who value linguistic diversity from those who see it as a threat to unity. Bilingual education programs, which instruct students in both their native language and in English, have sparked years of policy wars, and we seem to be no closer to reaching agreement on the issue. Americans fundamentally disagree on the ultimate purpose of language education—literacy in English or bilingual literacy? As a teacher in an urban public school, I have seen that diversity and unity are not mutually exclusive. Promoting English as the only language of opportunity deprives my multilingual students of the power that comes with biliteracy. If, in the name of preserving national heritage, we demand that entire subgroups of Americans relinquish their own, then it’s time to revisit our priorities. We must recognize that language diversity is an asset, not a threat.

“English-only” movements seem to have gained the most momentum during periods of social, political, or economic unrest. As writer James Crawford explains, among “the privileged and powerful, and . . . those who share their worldview,” support for restrictive language policies often stems from fear of “change in the structures of power, class, and ethnicity.” The same power dynamic and fear of “otherness” that feed racism in our society are also at work in shaping language education policy. In a 2014 article for CNN, linguistics professor Philip Carter surveyed the history of America’s efforts to stamp out language diversity. In the mid-nineteenth century, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs instituted English-only boarding schools for Native American children. These schools forced assimilation by cropping students’ hair, dressing them in the styles of white men, and punishing students who spoke in their native language. Today, of the nearly two hundred languages indigenous to the United States, almost a third are extinct and 145 are vulnerable or endangered, according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Carter also describes how “anti-German hysteria in the era of World War I led to the systematic closing of long standing German language schools.” Despite a 1947 federal court ruling in Mendez v. Westminster that outlawed the segregation of Mexican American students in California schools, many Southwestern states were “routinely shaming, punishing, and expelling students for speaking Spanish at school.” Today nearly 40 million people speak Spanish in the U.S., but recent headlines show there is still plenty of resistance to accepting linguistic diversity. Carter cites a December 2013 incident in which the principal at a Texas middle school tried to ban students from speaking in Spanish. This event is part of a powerful shift toward restrictive language policies over the past several decades.

In 1981, Republican Senator S. I. Hayakawa first introduced a bill to make English the official language of United States. Upon leaving the Senate two years later, he founded the organization U.S. English, a group who believes that multilingualism compromises our nation’s cultural unity. Building on Kayakawa’s platform, in 1998 Ron Unz lead a ballot initiative in California called “English for the Children,” which capitalized on public confusion and misinformation to effectively outlaw bilingual education in public schools. Many states followed the lead of California’s Proposition 227: between 2000 and 2008, Alaska, Arizona, Utah, Nebraska, Oregon, Missouri, Colorado, and Massachusetts all voted in versions of English-only policies, dismantling most of the country’s bilingual education programs. Many writers have thoroughly analyzed the torturous debate over bilingual education, and I will not rehash the long discussion here. Readers who wish to understand the facts should turn to the writing of James Crawford and to research by Stephen Krashen and Jim Cummins showing that students who achieve literacy in their first language learn a second language more easily. Jay Greene’s meta-analysis of research on the effectiveness of bilingual education confirmed, “Limited English Proficient (LEP) students in bilingual education significantly outperform their counterparts in English-only programs.” The problem I see is that for the past fifteen years, much of the conversation has focused on whether bilingual education is effective at teaching students English. Fewer people question the system that limits instruction in a child’s native language, only to “feebly reintroduce it to them ten years later as a foreign language.” At this point, according to Philip Carter, “it is mostly too late” for students to develop fluency.

As a high school ESL teacher in Massachusetts, I have wrestled with the knowledge that my work, while building fluency and literacy in English for all my students, ignores the development of their native language literacy. Most of my students speak their native language at home, but many cannot read or write in it beyond basic levels. Students who were born in the United States or have lived here most of their lives are rapidly losing even their oral proficiency—their parents speak to them in their first language, but the kids respond in English (a pattern called receptive bilingualism.) According to Philip Carter, “immigrant languages are mostly or completely lost by the third generation.” What heritages are we losing along the way?

The field of education lags behind many others where bilingualism is gaining ground. Neuroscientists have touted the cognitive advantages of bilingual brains. The globalization of our economy has made bilingualism a valuable resource in the workplace. Advertisers spend billions of dollars targeting the trillion dollar Hispanic consumer market, and politicians court the Latino vote. In 2001, George W. Bush made presidential history when he delivered his weekly radio address in English and Spanish. Our demographics are shifting rapidly, and America will soon be a majority-minority country. The Bueno Policy Center reports, “Fifty-five million humans living in the United States–nearly 20 percent of our total population–speak a language other than English at home. Of these people, 86 percent were born in the United States, 37 million speak Spanish and 25 million are deemed Emerging Bilinguals.” Still, many Americans are afraid of linguistic diversity.

Most states in the South have been silent on the issue of language diversity—until now. A Mississippi group called the Magnolia State Heritage Campaign is lobbying to put a “Confederate Heritage Amendment” on the presidential election ballot in 2016. If approved, the proposed ballot text will read: “Should the Constitution be amended to restrict or define Mississippi’s heritage, religion, official language, symbols, universities, and state boundaries?” If voters answer “yes,” twelve provisions will be added to the state constitution, including defining Mississippi’s identity “as a principally Christian and quintessentially Southern state,” naming April as “Confederate Heritage Month,” and allowing the Confederate battle flag to be displayed on the state capitol grounds. The measure declares, “English shall be the official language of the State of Mississippi. All governmental or public non-emergency or non-judicial services, functions, or communications in Mississippi shall be rendered in the English language only, except for specific foreign language instruction in public schools.” Former state representative Mark Duvall urges Mississippians to “embrace and preserve our Heritage as the cornerstone for future generations to build upon. Our faith, our flag, our song and our mascots, in essence, identify who we are as Mississippians.” The Heritage campaign website offers this rationale for the language restriction: “Besides saving some money, an added plus for all city, county, and state telephone lines will be: No more pressing ‘1’ for English.” This glib remark ignores the consequences for the nearly 120,000 Mississippians who speak another language at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As the ACLU of Mississippi explains in a statement opposing the initiative, “Discrimination against language minorities and restrictions on communication in languages other than English implicate our most basic rights of equal protection, free speech, and due process. A declaration of English as the official language is inconsistent with the spirit of tolerance and diversity embodied in the federal Constitution.” They also remind voters that “Ballot Initiative 46 wants to assert ‘heritage, culture and traditions’ that are steeped in historical discrimination based on race.” In trying to define its heritage, Mississippi (and states across the South) must choose: what should we hold on to? What should we let go?

The online magazine Rethinking Schools reports that “since 1980, the number of language-minority Americans has increased at more than four times the rate of overall population growth.” Yet “only a minority of limited English proficient students are currently enrolled in bilingual education programs taught by a certified teacher who speaks their native language.” There are signs, though, that the tides are turning in favor of language diversity. In California, Ricardo Lara has proposed a ballot initiative for 2016 calling for the repeal of Proposition 227 and the return of bilingual education. Dual language immersion programs, which teach students from different language backgrounds to be fluent and literate in two languages, are gaining more traction in U.S. school districts. California has even spearheaded a state Seal of Biliteracy, an award that recognizes “students who have studied and attained proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation.” Seven other states have since established the award. According to the Seal of Biliteracy website, the award’s purpose is “to certify attainment of biliteracy skills,” “to strengthen intergroup relationships and honor the multiple cultures and languages in a community,” and “to recognize the value of language diversity.” Six states are in the process of considering whether to adopt the Seal of Biliteracy, and seven more are in the “early stages.” For states that are caught in the false dilemma of heritage—whether to preserve diversity or unity—this vision of unity through the celebration of diversity should be a guiding beacon. So far, Texas and Louisiana are the only Southern states to consider or approve the Seal of Biliteracy. I’ll be watching closely to see whether my home state of Tennessee chooses to follow. Centuries from now, I hope that American heritage has held on to language diversity as a national resource. The fear, intolerance, and discrimination—it’s time to let them go.