This post was submitted by Phillip M. Carter, an associate professor of linguistics at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute
The French Revolutionaries, compelled as they were by their own notion of égalité, put forth a radical idea: eliminate social inequality by giving all French citizens access to the French language. A common language, disseminated to the masses in a standardized form through a national system of public education, they thought, would enfranchise the disenfranchised and centralize the concerns of the nation in the lives of the citizenry. Une langue, un peuple, une nation, they told the world – ‘one language, one people, one nation.’ Their idea to articulate national identity through monolingualism caught on, not only across Europe, but the world over.
The American Revolutionaries who preceded the French had the foresight to avoid establishing an official language for the United States, correctly fearing that doing so would reproduce the very tyranny they sought to escape. Americans have nevertheless always been seduced by the power of language as a tool for easy nationalism. Of the 29 US states that have declared English as their only “official” language, about half passed their laws during the 1980s, the heyday for politically motivated language anxieties. It is therefore little surprise that within one day of assuming office, the Trump administration had removed every word of Spanish from the White House website.
Since then, things have only gotten worse. Trump aide Stephen Miller has a long history of making virulently anti-Spanish and anti-Latino comments. In February, Republican Congressman Steve King re-introduced “The English Language Unity Act,” a bill designed to make English the official language of the United States. King’s bill is as unnecessary as it is un-American since government business already takes place only in English. Eleven months have gone by since Spanish was removed from the site, and there is still no indication it will ever be restored.
These moves wreak of the kind of banal nationalism we have come to expect of Trumpism in its first year. “English-only” is simply the linguistic equivalent of constructing a border wall, or creating a “Muslim registry.” Each one symbolizes the kind of “Let’s Make America Great Again” vision of the body politic based in exclusion and time-gone-by righteousness that appeals to our worst and most misguided sensibilities.
Questions of symbolism aside, language restrictions – like building a wall or creating a religious registry – are logistically untenable. In the US today, there are some 55 million Spanish speakers. Though the overwhelming majority of these 55 million also speak English, Spanish is, by the numbers, a second national language. That’s a fact-fact, not an alternative one. And in cities like Miami, Spanish is vital. Its use should be expanding in government, for reasons symbolic and pragmatic, not retracting.
The French Revolutionaries had many ideas worth upholding, but on the matter of language, they got it precisely backwards. Equality doesn’t come from imposing the wishes of the socially dominant language group on the whole of society. It doesn’t come from pretending that multilingualism doesn’t exist, or from promoting the untenable and unrealistic fantasy of monolingualism. It was problematic in the 18th Century, and yet more unrealistic still in the 21st. Looking back over the past 215 years or so of Western language history, it is clear that the French notion of une langue, un peuple, une nation is both morally and logistically abject. If that sounds like hyperbole, consider that in the 20th Century, Stalin, Mussolini, and Franco all borrowed its premise to launch their programs of nationalism, to devastating effects. And in the 19th Century, American President Andrew Jackson, whose portrait now hangs in Trump’s Oval Office, signed the Indian Removal Act into law, which initiated the Trail of Tears and led to the destruction of many Native cultures and languages. Native languages, in Jackson’s view, were considered incompatible with the American nation. It would seem that Spanish is shaping up to be the modern day equivalent in Trump’s America.
The appearance of English-only-ism in year one of the Trump presidency is indeed cause for great concern. Because while the French Revolutionaries tried out their experiment in monolingual nation-building in the spirit of égalité, the efforts of Trump, Miller, and King are petty, spiteful, and in the active service of inequality. And while the Revolutionaries couldn’t have guessed the unforeseen, negative outcomes of their language planning, we know exactly what happens to people when you suppress their languages: negative consequences proliferate in education, health, and community wellbeing.
The United States is a multilingual nation. To pretend otherwise is to simply engage in head-in-the-sand nationalism.