Tuesday, May 23, 2006

On the Impending Doom of the English Language

So I'm watching the news and they're having this discussion over whether or not English in this country is on the way out, and the various proposals to make English the "official" language of the country. Or something. These proposals are largely pointless; other than making it more difficult to have various government forms or signs written in more than one language, they are purely symbolic gestures. They are intended to placate the xenophobic wing of the American electorate. These people have apparently convinced themselves that English, a language we speak as an accident of history, is headed for extinction.

But the idea that this country is going to be overwhelmed by Spanish speakers is nonsense, so much so that it really boggles the mind. Here's why.

First of all, it's true that first-generation (i.e. foreign born) immigrants often don't learn English or don't learn it very well. But this has always been the case. It was very common back in the 19th century for immigrants to sequester themselves in ethnic enclaves where they were able to live and work speaking only their native tongue. They had newspapers written in their language, schools that taught in their language, and (gasp!) signs written in their language. This didn't cause any particular problems aside from your standard ethnic and racial tensions caused by the very xenophobes who are opposed to immigration today. But it does raise the question: If we're a nation of immigrants, why isn't everyone living in enclaves and speaking the language of the old country?

The answer is second and third-generation immigrants (i.e. the children and grandchildren of the foreign born). English acquisition among the children of immigrants is right at about 100%, and this is true of Hispanics today just as it was of Poles and Italians back in the 1800s. Not only that, but retention of their "native" tongue is often at 50% or less. By the 3rd generation, it's usually completely gone. All they know is English.

Looked at from this perspective, it's obvious why the supposed impending dominance of Spanish in America is so silly. The net effect of immigrants coming here from Mexico and Central America is to decrease the number of Spanish speakers and increase the number of English speakers. If they stayed home, their children and grandchildren would be speaking Spanish. But by coming here, they grow-up speaking English.

Of course there is the oft-repeated but rarely supported claim that Mexican immigrants aren't assimilating. But this is a misunderstanding of how immigrants normally behave. First-generation immigrants very commonly stick to their old language and customs. But their children and grandchildren do not. As the first generation grows old and is replaced by younger generations, assimilation happens as a matter of attrition.

It is of course possible that for some odd reason the children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants are behaving in a manner contrary to every other immigrant group throughout history, but there's never any evidence given for this insinuation, and linguists scoff at it. The same pattern we've always seen is repeating itself today. English in this country is in absolutely no danger of disappearing or becoming significantly diminished.

People also underappreciate the cultural dominance of the English language and just how widespread it has become. Far from being faced with extinction, it's more like an introduced weed that grows out of control and threatens the survival of less widely spoken native languages. English is an extremely common second language in Europe, and it is increasingly common for the Chinese to learn English. It is not common for Americans to learn Chinese.

Of all the misconceptions swirling around the immigration (non-)debate, the idea that English is disappearing is probably the strangest and least sensible. I think it's a good way to demarcate those who can be taken seriously from those who can't.