Myths of melting pots and discarded tongues (part 1)

While the United States government seems intent on providing me a never ending supply of budget dysfunction discourse, I’ve decided to move on to another pressing topic that US politicians have been discussing: immigration.

President Obama gave some prominence to immigration in his recent State of the Union address and, importantly, connected the topic of immigration to language:

Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally. [emphasis added]

To me, language seems to be the odd one out in this list.  I am skeptical of whether English fits into the same definition of who can belong to the US as the others in the list (like following laws and paying taxes).  Scholars often make a distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism.  Civic nationalism is the ideology that argues membership in a nation should be dependent on an individual’s voluntary participation in civic processes.  In contrast, ethnic nationalism argues that membership in the nation should be dependent on shared culture, ethnicity, ancestry, and language.  I’m not surprised to find that ethnicity and ancestry are absent from Obama’s list.  Curiously, however, language does appear.

In her recent blog post, Ingrid Piller points out that, in modern Western democracies, language seems to be treated as an aspect of civic duty.  She specifically looked at some data from my article in the Journal of Sociolinguistics.  In that article, I argued that many members of Congress tried to construe English as an aspect of civic rather than ethnic nationalism. Although in the United States we would vehemently deny ethnicity and ancestry as relevant factors for belonging to our nation, it seems we are less willing to accept this idea for culture and particularly for language.  Of course, our ideas are affected by the fact that unlike the color of someone’s skin, people can, on some level, ‘choose’ a language.

However, I’d like to take this opportunity to explore how our ideas about immigrants’ language learning is grossly misconstrued by the myths we (here I use we largely to mean US citizens of European descent) tell about our own immigrant heritage and our ancestors’ alleged shedding of their native tongues.  Specifically, when we tell stories about our ancestors’ language learning, we tell them in such a way that to speak English becomes a simple matter of choice, much like most of the characteristics in the features of civic nationalism.

The first story I’ll examine comes from Dan Coats, Republican Senator of Indiana.  In 2010, I was living in Indiana and following the Congressional elections that would take place in November very closely.  Reading over Dan Coats’ campaign website (no longer online, but you can see the relevant statements here), I came across this story about his immigrant mother’s (and her family’s) language learning and saved it for later analysis:

I’m the son of an immigrant. My mother came from Sweden with five sisters and two brothers and her mother. Her father had come earlier and started a farm and they were coming to join him — after they had legally qualified. My mother shared with us a story I will never forget: On the ship coming into Ellis Island, her mother gathered the family and said “From this point forward, I never want to hear another word of Swedish, we are Americans now.”

Immigration has to be addressed and addressed immediately. …

Coats tells us a classic ‘good’ immigrant story in the sense that the immigrants in this story do all the ‘right’ things.  For example, they qualify legally before coming to the United States.  Notably, they also start speaking English immediately.  These qualities in Coats’ view make his family commendable.  It appears also that he tells this family history to give himself license to talk about immigration policy.

I imagine many of my readers immediately questioned the plausibility of Coats’ grandmother and her children starting to speak English (even amongst themselves no less) from the moment they arrived in the United States.  However, I think if we think about this story in more detail it becomes clear that Coats’ story is not only unrealistic in its portrayal of language learning, it is dangerously so.

We can first start with the unlikely nature of Coats’ story of language learning. Although we’re given no indication of effort expended to learn English, it’s unlikely that without months of studying and practicing that the mother was able to make this apparently spontaneous statement and that all of her children were able to understand it. It’s even less likely that they could or would actually hold themselves to this commitment. Using the more familiar first language (Swedish) would simply be a communicative necessity especially for the first months and years of their time in the United States.  Consider also that history shows us that immigrants of past generations did not trade in their first languages for English as Coats seems to suggest happened in his family.

Now putting aside the simplicity of the narrative, I want to stress that it is more than just a silly story from a man who’s proud of his heritage.  I believe that this story (and others like it) is how we go about connecting English to civic nationalism.

The story suggests that learning and using a new language is primarily a choice.  The characters in the story simply declare that they will stop using Swedish and begin to use English.  As a result, they choose both English and ‘Americanness’, which in the logic of the story are basically inseparable.

I don’t believe that Dan Coats simply placed this story on his campaign website to be whimsical.  He specifically chose to preface his views on immigration with the story.  Campaign materials are very intentionally designed to communicate the candidate’s message to voters (although I should also mention that the candidate is probably considering what he thinks voters want to hear and so these ideas are not solely his own).  The story has a point, and I think we can sum it up quite simply in the following way (and none of these statements reflect my own beliefs).  People choose language.  ‘Americanness’ is tied to English.  ‘Real’ Americans choose English.

Therefore, what appears at face value to be nothing more than a harmless exaggeration about a proud man’s heritage, on closer inspection, is an ideology about who belongs in the United States and who does not. Coats’ story relies on an over-simplification of language learning that makes it appear to be largely a matter of choice.  If language learning is simply a choice, then it seems reasonable to ask immigrants to ‘choose’ English as a matter of civic belonging and as a requirement for citizenship.  In this line of reasoning, those who do not ‘choose’ English do not belong.

I plan to continue to look at some more of these stories in my upcoming posts, but for now I wonder if any of you have heard or read any similar stories?  If you have please share them by commenting below.  Also, if you enjoyed reading this post, please pass it along to others or subscribe to my blog to receive updates.

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Posted in Human migration
7 comments on “Myths of melting pots and discarded tongues (part 1)
  1. Mai says:

    This is really interesting, and I hope you will continue to write about it.

    In our undergraduate introduction to language variation course, one of the linguistic background questions I ask is what languages were once spoken in the student’s family, and what experiences accompanied the transition to English. Almost invariably, students have almost nothing to say, even if their own grandparents were the ones who came to the U.S. speaking some language other than English. Sure, there was some German or something (if it is a less well-known language, they might not know the actual name of the language) spoken two or more generations ago, and they might dutifully note that it’s too bad that nothing is left of it, but it’s an uninteresting bit of family trivia. I’d say that by now I’ve asked about 800 students this question, and fewer than 10 have known anything specific about previous generations’ experiences with adjusting to an English-speaking environment. It doesn’t seem plausible that no hardship was involved in any of those transitions.

  2. Mai says:

    Oh, oops. I forgot to make my actual point, which is that, in the absence of any information about what happened, it is not strange that family myths about the immigration experience would get constructed.

  3. On Politics and Language says:

    Reblogged this on On Politics and Language.

  4. nsubtirelu says:

    Hey Mai, thanks for sharing that. I’m pretty shocked by your low estimate, although as you’ve suggested it might explain why Dan Coats and others are able to make such claims. It’s interesting also how fast it seems to happen. In your typical student narrative that you’ve mentioned the language was spoken two or more generations ago. I’m much less surprised by such a distance leading to myths. For Coats, his mother, presumably herself at least at one time a Swedish speaker, is the apparent source of the myth! Perhaps in this case we see the immigrant herself trying to perform her civic duty and ‘Americanness’.

  5. Giovanna says:

    What I find interesting about the Senator’s story is the fact that many third-, fourth-, and later-generation Americans often bemoan such decisions on the part of their immigrant ancestors, wishing that they had instead chosen bilingualism in the home, and that the linguistic heritage of their ancestors had been passed on to them. I hear this mostly from Irish- and Scottish-Americans, but they are by no means unique in this lamentation (and I live in an area which was primarily settled by people of Scottish and Irish descent, usually with some Native American ancestry as well, so perhaps I’m more exposed to their perspectives than I would be if I lived somewhere else). I also wish my ancestors had not abandoned their languages, but had instead passed them down as part of their legacy to me.

    This “melting pot” (Borg assimilation) idea was never successful in US history. Cajun French is still spoken in Louisiana. Most decent-sized US population centers have a barrio where Spanish is much more common than English. Gaelic was spoken regularly in North Carolina until the end of the 19th century. Broad Scots has left lingering vestiges in the speech of rural communities all over the American South. Chinatown is not without the presence of Chinese language. Nobody seems to take too much offense to these facts. And it goes further than language, particularly in the cases of Chinatown and the barrios, but still, we don’t ordinarily encounter the sort of opposition toward these pockets of ancestral culture as seen in connection with Spanish language and culture. Obviously, something more than language difference motivates this reaction, and the nature of that something is also obvious: prejudice.

  6. jaketodd says:

    I feel like one should not have to “give up” their native tongue for English.Knowledge is power,so no harm in adding English to whatever tongue you speak.The more the merrier sentiment is implemented.

  7. […] of origin, to remain in the host country indefinitely (and not return to the country of origin), to discard their languages and cultures, and fully assimilate into the dominant host culture. When they instead remain […]

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