Should English be the official language of the United States?

There is currently a bill in the US House to make English the official language of the United States. These bills have been around for a while now. H.R. 997, also known as the “The English Language Unity Act”, was first proposed in 2003. The companion bill, last seen as S. 678 in the 114th congress, was first introduced to the Senate as S. 991 in 2009, and if history is any guide will be introduced again this session.

So if these bills have been around for a bit, why am I just talking about them now? Two reasons. First, I had a really good conversation about this with someone on Twitter the other day and I thought it would be useful to discuss  this in more depth. Second, I’ve been seeing some claims that President Trump made English the official language of the U.S. (he didn’t), so I thought it would be timely to discuss why I think that’s such a bad idea.

As both a linguist and a citizen, I do not think that English should be the official language of the United States.

In fact, I don’t think the US should have any official language. Why? Two main reasons:

  • Historically, language legislation at a national level has… not gone well for other countries.
  • Picking one official language ignores the historical and current linguistic diversity of the United States.

Let’s start with how passing legislation making one or more languages official has gone for other countries. I’m going to stick with just two, Canada and Belgium, but please feel free to discuss others in the comments.

Canada

Unlike the US, Canada does have an official language. In fact, thanks to a  1969 law, they have two: English and French. If you’ve ever been to Canada, you know that road signs are all in both English and French.

This law was passed in the wake of turmoil in Quebec sparked by a Montreal school board’s decision to teach all first grade classes in French, much to the displeasure of the English-speaking residents of St. Leonard. Quebec later passed Bill 101 in 1977, making French the only official language of the province. One commenter on this article by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called this “the most divisive law in Canadian history”.

Language legislation and its enforcement in Canada has been particularity problematic for businesses. On one occasion, an Italian restaurant faced an investigation for using the word “pasta” on thier menu, instead of the French “pâtes”. Multiple retailers have faced prosecution at the hands of the Office Québécois de la langue Française for failing to have retail websites available in both English and French. A Montreal boutique narrowly avoided a large fine for making Facebook posts only in English. There’s even an official list of English words that Quebec Francophones aren’t supposed to use. While I certainly support bilingualism, personally I would be less than happy to see the same level of government involvement in language use in the US.

In addition, having only French and English as the official languages of Canada leave out a  very important group: aboriginal language users. There are over 60 different indigenous languages used in Canada used by over 213 thousand speakers. And even those don’t make up the majority of languages spoken in Canada: there are over 200 different languages used in Canada and 20% of the population speaks neither English nor French at home.

Belgium

Another country with a very storied past in terms of language legislation is Belgium. The linguistic situation in Belgium is very complex (there’s a more in-depth discussion here), but the general gist is that there are three languages used in different parts of the country. Dutch is used in the north, French is the south, and German in parts of the east. There is also a deep cultural divide between these regions, which language legislation has long served as a proxy for. There have been no fewer than eight separate national laws passed restricting when and where each language can be used. In 1970, four distinct language regions were codified in the Belgium constitution. You can use whatever language you want in private but there are restrictions on what language you can use for government business, in court, in education and employment.  While you might think that would put a rest to legislation on language, tensions have continued to be high. In 2013, for instance, the European Court of Justice overturned a Flemish law that contracts written in Flanders had to be in Dutch to be binding after a contractor working on an English contract was fired. Again, this represents a greater level of official involvement with language use than I’m personally comfortable with.

I want to be clear: I don’t think multi-lingualism is a problem. As a linguist, I value every language and I also recognize that bilingualism offers significant cognitive benefits. My problem is with legislating which languages should be used in a multi-lingual situation; it tends to lead to avoidable strife.

The US

Ok, you might be thinking, but in the US we really are just an English-speaking country! We wouldn’t have that same problem here. Weeeeelllllll….

The truth is, the US is very multilingual. We have a Language Diversity Index of .353, according to the UN. That means that, if you randomly picked two people from the United States population, the chance that they’d speak two different languages is over 35%. That’s far higher than a lot of other English-speaking countries. The UK clocks in at .139,  while New Zealand and Australia are at .102 and .126, respectively. (For the record, Canada is at .549 and Belgium .734.)

The number of different languages spoken in the US is also remarkable. In New York City alone there may be speakers of as many as 800 different languages, which would make it one of the most linguistically-diverse places in the world; like the Amazon rain-forest of languages. In King County, where I live now, there are over 170 different languages spoken, with the most common being Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Amharic. And that linguistic diversity is reflected in the education system: there are almost 5 million students in the US Education system who are learning English, nearly 1 out of 10 students.

Multilingualism in the United States is nothing new, either: it’s been a part of the American experience since long before there was an America. Of course, there continue to be many speakers of indigenous languages in the United States, including Hawaiian (keep in mind that Hawaii did not actually want to become a state). But even within just European languages, English has never had sole dominion. Spanish has been spoken in Florida since the 1500’s. At the time of the signing of the Deceleration of Independence, an estimated 10% of the citizens of the newly-founded US spoke German (although the idea that it almost became the official language of the US is a myth). New York city? Used to be called New Amsterdam, and Dutch was spoken there into the 1900’s. Even the troops fighting the revolutionary war were doing so in at least five languages.

Making English the official language of the United States would ignore the rich linguistic history and the current linguistic diversity of this country. And, if other countries’ language legislation is any guide, would cause a lot of unnecessary fuss.

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Social Speech Perception: Reviewing recent work

As some of you may already know, it’s getting to be crunch time for me on my PhD. So for the next little bit, my blog posts will probably mostly be on things that directly related to my dissertation. Consider this your behind-the-scenes pass to the research process.

With that in mind, today we’ll be looking at some work that’s closely related to my own.(And, not coincidentally, that I need to include in my lit review. Twofer.) They all share a common thread: social categories and speech perception. I’ve talked about this before, but these are more recent peer-reviewed papers on the topic.

Vowel perception by listeners from different English dialects

In this paper, Karpinska and coauthors investigated the role of a listener’s regional dialect on their use of two acoustic cues: formats and duration.

An acoustic cue is a specific part of the speech signal that you pay attention to to help you decide what sound you’re hearing. For example, when listening to a fricative, like “s” or “sh”,  you pay a lot of attention to the high-pitched, staticy-sounding  part of the sound to tell which fricative you’re hearing. This cue helps you tell the difference  between “sip” and “ship”, and if it gets removed or covered by another sound you’ll have a hard time telling those words apart.

They found that for listeners from the UK, New Zealand, Ireland and Singapore, formants were the most important cue distinguishing the vowels in “bit” and “beat”. For Australian listeners, however, duration (how long the vowel was) was a more important cue to the identity of these vowels. This study provides additional evidence that a listener’s dialect affects their speech perception, and in particular which cues they rely on.

Social categories are shared across bilinguals׳ lexicons

In this experiment Szakay and co-authors looked at English-Māori bilinguals from New Zealand. In New Zealand, there  are multiple dialects of English, including Māori English (the variety used by Native New Zealanders) and Pākehā English (the variety used by white New Zealanders). The authors found that there was a cross-language priming effect from Māori to English, but only for  Māori English.

Priming is a phenomena in linguistics where hearing or saying a particular linguistic unit, like a word, later makes it easier to understand or say a similar unit. So if I show you a picture of a dog, you’re going to be able to read the word “puppy” faster than you would have otherwise becuase you’re already thinking about canines.

They argue that this is due to the activation of language forms associated with a specific social identity–in this case Māori ethnicity. This provides evidence that listener’s beliefs about a speaker’s social identity affects their processing.

Intergroup Dynamics in Speech Perception: Interaction Among Experience, Attitudes and Expectations

Nguyen and co-authors investigate the effects of three separate factors on speech perception:

  • Experience: How much prior interaction a listener has had with a given speech variety.
  • Attitudes: How a listener feels about a speech variety and those who speak it.
  • Expectations: Whether a listener knows what speech variety they’re going to hear. (In this case only some listeners were explicitly told what speech variety they were going to hear.)

They found that these three factors all influenced the speech perception of Australian English speakers listening to Vietnamese accented English, and that there was an interaction between these factors. In general, participants with correct expectations (i.e. being told beforehand that they were going to hear Vietnamese accented English) identified more words correctly.

There was an interesting interaction between listener’s attitudes towards Asians and thier experience with Vietnamese accented English. Listeners who had negative prejudices towards Asians and little experience with Vietnamese English were more accurate than those with little experience and positive prejudice. The authors suggest that that was due to listeners with negative prejudice being more attentive. However, the opposite effect was found for listener’s with experience listening to Vietnamese English. In this group, positive prejudice increase accuracy while negative prejudice decreased it. There were, however, uneven numbers of participants between the groups so this might have skewed the results.

For me, this study is most useful becuase it shows that a listener’s experience with a speech variety and their expectation of hearing it affect their perception. I would, however, like to see a larger listener sample, especially given the strong negative skew in listner’s attitudes towards Asians (which I realize the researchers couldn’t have controlled for).

Perceiving the World through Group-Colored Glasses: A Perceptual Model of Intergroup Relations

Rather than presenting an experiment, this paper lays out a framework for the interplay of social group affiliation and perception. The authors pull together numerous lines of research showing that an individual’s own group affiliation can change thier perception and interpretation of the same stimuli. In the authors’ own words:

The central premise of our model is that social identification influences perception.

While they discuss perception across many domains (visual, tactile, orlfactory, etc.) the part which directly fits with my work is that of auditory perception. As they point out, auditory perception of speech depends on both bottom up and top down information. Bottom-up information, in speech perception, is the acoustic signal, while top-down information includes both knowledge of the language (like which words are more common) and social knowledge (like our knowledge of different dialects). While the authors do not discuss dialect perception directly, other work (including the three studies discussed above) fits nicely into this framework.

The key difference between this framework and Kleinschmidt & Jaeger’s Robust Speech Perception model is the centrality of the speaker’s identity. Since all language users have thier own dialect which affects their speech perception (although, of course, some listeners can fluently listen to more than one dialect) it is important to consider both the listener’s and talker’s social affiliation when modelling speech perception.