In part 2 of our review of Samuel Huntington's Who Are We?, we suggested Geoff Nunberg's writings on bilingualism as an instructive foil for examining Prof. Huntington's, an exercise to which we will now turn our attention. Only one reason for this is the fact that Prof. Nunberg's 1989 article in Language, "Linguists and the Official Language Movement" (see vol. 65, pp. 579-87) serves in such a role in several places throughout the book; more broadly, other of Prof. Nunberg's writings (see this 1992 essay) lay out a distinctly different ideological program regarding national identity.
Huntington quotes Nunberg in reference to the popularity of official English movements, writing that "a Stanford University linguist commented sadly but accurately":
By and large, the successes of the [Official English] movement have been achieved without the support of establishment politicians and organizations...The U.S. English leadership is probably justified in claiming that 'no one is for us but the people.'"
This is a statement which, surprisingly, both Huntington and Nunberg agree on the political meaning of. In the 1992 article, Nunberg writes:
To make the English language "official," however, is not merely to acknowledge it as the language commonly used in commerce, mass communications, and public affairs. Rather, it is to invest English with a symbolic role in national life, and to endorse a cultural conception of American identity as the basis for political unity. And while the general communicative role of English in America has not changed over the past two hundred years, the cultural importance that people attach to the language has evolved considerably.
Similarly, Huntington describes a number of ballot controversies about official English by stating:
In terms of both symbol and substance, the battles over English were a major front in the broader war over American identity. The question in this conflict, one scholar said, is "whether the United States should reflect a dominant English-speaking majoritarianism or encourage a multilingual culture." The real issue, however, is not multilingualism but bilingualism.
Huntington and Nunberg both characterize the role of English in American life as a salient feature of American identity. Where they differ is on the question of whether it's truly substantial; for Nunberg, who sees the question of American identity in terms of a shared symbolism, and with substantial nods to the Creed (albeit not named as such), the rise of multilingual mass media is adequate to communicate the truly substantial features of American identity. He cites Benedict Anderson:
Multilingual broadcasting can conjure up the imagined community to illiterates and populations with different mother tongues. (Here there are resemblances to the conjuring up of medieval Christendom through visual representations and bilingual literati.) ... Nations can now be imagined without linguistic communality.
In support of the idea that nations can exist without a common language, Nunberg adduces Africa and Asia, filled as they are with multilingual countries, and Switzerland as proof that lack of linguistic commonality is hardly a necessary precursor to national disintegration. Furthermore, a point which Nunberg makes in both his 1992 and 2004 writings is that by the third or fourth generation of immigrant families, English is generally the language of preference. As a practical matter of policy, Nunberg's view is that it's sufficient to continue focusing on teaching children English, that bilingual education is an acceptable technique for doing so, and that ultimately, the focus on language seems to be epiphenomenal to a broader concern about culture.
As part of his most recent critique of Huntington in Language Log, Nunberg calls out Huntington for conflating individual bilingualism with social bilingualism; while this may be a fair critique of Huntington's writing in Foreign Policy, it is less so of Who Are We?. Huntington writes:
Hispanic leaders have actively pushed the desirability of all Americans being fluent in both English and at least one other language, meaning Spanish. A persuasive case can be made that in a shrinking world all Americans should know at least one important foreign language -- Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Russian, Arabic, Bahasa Malay, French, German, Spanish -- so as to be able to understand one foreign culture and communicate with its people. It is quite different to argue that Americans should know a non-English language in order to communicate with their fellow Americans. Yet that is what the Spanish advocates [emphasis mine -- SC] have in mind. "English is not enough," argues Osvaldo Soto, president of the Spanish American League Against Discrimination (SALAD). "We don't want a monolingual society."
This is the point at which ideology comes into play most strongly. Nunberg derides Huntington's Foreign Policy article for promulgating "the familiar assumption that the natural state for Americans is English monolingualism (perhaps with a smattering of late-acquired French or German as a middle-class accomplishment) -- a true American can't serve two linguistic masters". Huntington's concern, though, is not that some individuals will retain an ability to function in Spanish, but rather that those people tasked with the business of representing immigrant -- particularly Hispanic -- interests evince a hostility towards integration with the American mainstream culture which cannot be readily explained away. While Nunberg cites the facts that "99 percent of bilingual education programs are transitional, and even at their peak, bilingual programs enrolled fewer than 30 percent of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) children (the figure is lower now)", Huntington replies that it's of greater concern that when transitional programs fail to meet their goals, the leaders who ought to be focused on helping immigrants merge into the culture are busy defending these programs, rather than calling for their reform or replacement. Citing a New York Times magazine article which reported that in 1999, some 90% of students in NYC bilingual education programs failed to transition to English-only classes after the three year guidelines of the programs, Huntington concludes that Hispanic political activists are doing immigrant children a disservice by defending transitional bilingual education, and that their behaviors are inconsistent with the goal of assimilation. In his American Prospect article, Nunberg concedes the uneven quality of bilingual education programs, but defends them as being the best available on the then-current (1997) evidence. Early returns from post-Proposition 227 California suggest that total English immersion may be no better than bilingual transition programs; assuming roughly equivalent quality of outcomes, though, there's considerable room to argue on an ideological basis about the cultural messages communicated by educating in Spanish, or mixed English and Spanish, versus educating in English alone.
Even if Nunberg is correct, and immigrants' continued use of their homeland languages does not represent a falure of immigrant communities to assimilate into American culture, it is significant to Huntington that the defenders of multilingualism behave as though it did. Writing about a 1989 case in Los Angeles, where a group of Asian businessmen successfully sued to overturn a city law requiring commercial signs to be at least partly in English, Huntington notes that the judge agreed with the plaintiffs on the grounds that foreign-language signage constituted "an expression of national origin, culture, and ethnicity". In choosing these terms, the judge is making a case that the immigrants ought to be able to behave as settlers, to use the terminology introduced in the previous section of this review. As Huntington further adduces, it's not only government that adopts this view; again citing Prof. Nunberg's Language article, he notes that both Univision and Hallmark opposed official English policies, on the grounds that both (Hallmark once owned a Spanish-language broadcast network) stood to lose customers if they adopted English in preference to Spanish. Both of these actions indicate a belief that marketing to immigrant communities would be complicated by not communicating to them in non-English languages, a position which is difficult to reconcile with the view that linguistic assimilation is inevitable.
Ultimately, Huntington's case on bilingualism hinges on a claim which always demands extraordinary proof -- "this time, it's different". Landfills across America are littered with 1998-9 publications declaring that the United States had entered a magical "new economy", free of boom and bust cycles, and that there would be no end to the expansion because the miracles of computing technology assured that this time would be different from all other economic expansions in history. 60% lower on the NASDAQ later, most investors recognize this thinking to be bunk. Similarly, Nunberg has a potent weapon which Huntington must overcome. Writing in The American Prospect, he comments:
A number of factors contribute to the accelerated pace of language shift among immigrants: the increased mobility, both social and geographical, of modern life; the ubiquity of English-language media; universal schooling; and the demands of the urban workplace. In the nineteenth century, by contrast, many immigrants could hold on to their native language for several generations at no great cost: some because they lived in isolated farming communities and required very little contact with English speakers, others because they lived in one of the many states or cities that provided public schooling in their native tongues. At the turn of the century, in fact, more than 6 percent of American schoolchildren were receiving most or all of their primary education in the German language alone—programs that were eliminated only around the time of the First World War.
All of this underscores the irony of the frequent claims that unlike earlier generations, modern immigrants are refusing to learn English—or that modern bilingual education is an "unprecedented" concession to immigrants who insist on maintaining their own language. In point of fact, there's a good chance that great-grandpa didn't work very hard to learn English, and a fair probability that his kids didn't, either.
Huntington spends a considerable amount of time arguing that this time, immigration really is different. Looking at Mexican immigration patterns since 1975, Huntington identifies several features which are distinctly different from previous generations of immigrants: substantially higher proportions of illegal immigration than any other ethnic group, high regional concentration (most notably in the Southwest , Florida, and New York City), persistence (no significant closing of the borders has occurred in the past 30 years), and historical presence (unlike all other migrant groups, Mexicans have a plausible ownership claim to American territory grounded in historical facts), and finally, a government which encourages the mindset that emigrants are still Mexicans first and foremost. Huntington acknowledges the tendency of English to predominate in later generations, but argues that the other facts will combine to produce a situation where a Spanish-speaking community will gradually come to feel both alien from the American mainstream, and be both self-sufficient enough (and renewed by continuing migration) to be able to maintain such isolation indefinitely. It is probably 30-40 years too early to attempt to verify these claims empirically, but Huntington grounds his early pessimism in the significantly lower rates of naturalization for Mexicans than any other immigrant group, the low rates of intermarriage with the existing population for Hispanic immigrants generally compared to other immigrant groups (particularly Asians), and studies suggesting that the children of Latin American immigrants identify themselves most prominently as not being American.
Ultimately, then, the contest between the views of Geoff Nunberg and Samuel Huntington is a bet on whether or not historical trends will hold. Many of Huntington's concerns can plausibly be argued to be short-term effects; it does not help Huntington's case to note that German-American society formerly included an organization called the Bund, an organization more loyal to overtly hostile foreign powers than any of the Hispanic groups that he cites. With the distance afforded by history, we can clearly see that however dedicated any white supremacists may be today, their movement hardly represents anything like a "fifth column" of immigrant would-be Nazis holding out for an international Fourth Reich. In the optimistic view of Prof. Nunberg, the tide of history will sweep away any short-term concerns that some political activists, adopting an intemperate tone towards assimilation, might wish to avoid becoming Americans. In the pessimistic view of Prof. Huntington, the old results are predicated on old behavioral patterns, and modern immigration is adequately different that our policies must change in response or risk losing the society that we have.
These bets on the future correlate with different approaches to a variety of policies; foreign, educational, social, and even military. They also correlate with different ideas about what American identity ought to be. In the fourth and final part of this review, we'll discuss the policy prescriptions that follow from the ideologies of these scholars, and what their outcomes might mean for the American national ideology.