Struggles over Immigrants' Language: Literacy Tests in the United States, 1917-1966

Struggles over Immigrants' Language: Literacy Tests in the United States, 1917-1966

Struggles over Immigrants' Language: Literacy Tests in the United States, 1917-1966

Struggles over Immigrants' Language: Literacy Tests in the United States, 1917-1966

Synopsis

Oh argues that the introduction of literacy tests influenced both the possibility of immigrant admission to the United States and the exercise of suffrage. The Literacy Test Act of 1917 was the first national language restriction on immigration and was used as a means of excluding "undesirable" linguistic minorities. Focusing on New York State, Oh shows how literacy tests were used to preserve the political hegemony. She argues that linguistic assimilation carried different meanings for different people. For Europeans, it meant swifter assimilation into American society, while for non-whites it meant greater resistance to their attempts to enter society. Ultimately, the interactions and conflicts between immigrants, the states, and society over language restriction have been integral to the historical processes that defined and redefined the nation.

Excerpt

In August 2006, the U.S. Senate passed an immigration bill stipulating English as the “national language of the United States.” Senator James M. Inhofe from Oklahoma had successfully put forth his bill that asserted, “no person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English.” Senator Inhofe proudly declared that it was the first victory toward securing English as the national language since 1981 when the first proposal to declare English the official language nationwide was put forth in the Congress.

The 1981 effort was clearly not the first attempt to standardize English as an official language since the founding of the United States. Individuals such as John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt had spearheaded similar campaigns in 1780 and in the 1880s respectively. Ultimately, such attempts achieved little success in light of the consensus view that it was improper for any government to interfere in the matter of individual languages. At the beginning of the 21 century, however, twenty-five states and forty cities passed some form of law that proclaimed English the official language. Current proponents of official English measures argue that the purpose of this legislation is to promote national unity and protect a common bond that holds the divergent society together.

The United States is a well-known representative of many multiracial countries which never declared a specific national language. While it is a nation where diverse ethnicities with different tongues and nationalities live together, it was unnecessary for centuries to legislate an official language because English was obviously the de facto common language. This historical reality raises the question of why the United States suddenly requires an official language where none existed before. The easy conclusion is that the English only movement . . .

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