Multilingualism in the United States: Where We've Been and Where We Are

By Grant, Leslie | Black History Bulletin, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Multilingualism in the United States: Where We've Been and Where We Are


Grant, Leslie, Black History Bulletin


Language, whether our first or second, whether spoken or signed, enables us as humans to communicate our needs, wishes, concerns, and dreams. It is the vehicle by which we interact with one another to establish relationships, reach goals, and question the status quo; it is inseparable from our culture and identity. Language is, in a real sense, who we are and how we identify ourselves. While their discourse patterns may vary by age, gender, ethnic group, region, socioeconomic class, and so on, all children, barring developmental issues, acquire the ability to communicate. In fact, children are masterful users of their native tongues. Anyone who has interacted with a persistent five-year-old can attest to sophisticated grammar usage, intentional vocabulary decisions, and carefully determined intonation patterns that amaze and purposefully manipulate the listener. Interestingly enough, that savvy young communicator has yet to master many other skills, such as learning to tie her shoes or whistle. These contrasts have led some linguists who study child language acquisition to refer to our ability to acquire language as an "instinct" or "biological programming" of sorts. (1)

Language acquisition does not happen in a vacuum, however. This important aspect of our identity is grounded in our social context and is shaped by political forces; these factors, and their influence on language policy, change, and use by individuals and groups of individuals are the focus of this paper and lesson.

As an instructor of in-service and pre-service educators, I find that most of my students are unaware of how language figures into the history of the United States. Most of my students think that English has always been the language of government, business, and education, so they are always surprised and often quite upset when they learn about the twists and turns of our language history. Throughout U.S. history, a pattern became evident: there seem to be periods of openness and excitement about multiple languages and cultures followed by periods of restrictiveness and "English Only" types of discussions. In general, the trend throughout our history has been one of not valuing languages other than English; however, statements during the political campaign by President Barack Obama are encouraging in terms of valuing a multilingual future.

Early accounts of the languages and cultures found in the New World are, at first glance, encouraging. Numerous indigenous groups, representing large numbers of languages, lived throughout the country at the time when the first immigrants, which includes those who chose to come as well as those who were forced to come, brought their cultures and languages. These changes resulted in multiculturalism and multilingualism being commonplace. Linguistic diversity was found in the earliest schools. (2) Many groups provided education in the native language, with one of the first German-language schools being established in Pennsylvania in 1694. A number of states passed legislation that approved bilingual education or native language education: German-English bilingual schools were found in Wisconsin, Ohio, Missouri, and Maryland; French-English schools were common in Louisiana; and Spanish and Spanish-English schools were found in New Mexico and other parts of the southwest. Other states such as Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, and Texas offered education in Dutch, Czech, and Norwegian, to name a few other languages.

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While some scholars refer to this period of time as being "permissive" in terms of the coexistence of multiple languages and cultures, this was hardly the case for Africans who were forced to come to the New World. Even though many came from western Africa, there were still numerous language groups in that area (e.g. Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Fula, etc.); thus, just being from a particular region did not necessarily translate into sharing a mother tongue.

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