Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.
Due to a migratory childhood (born in Czechoslovakia, and eventually landing in Montreal via Austria and Italy), English was the fifth language I had to grapple with in my tender years. On my first day of kindergarten, I spoke only a few words of English. I could see that my teacher had some concerns as to how well I would integrate linguistically; my stumbling English was met with pursed lips.
The pursed-lips reaction of my teacher is shared by many who advocate English-only legislation for the U.S., seeking to ban the use of other languages in schools, government documents, and even radio stations and signs on private businesses. The common worry is that making it easier for immigrants to function in their native language is a form of enabling—it prevents them from learning English, hobbling their full entry into American society. Over the past few decades, the waves of Latin American immigrants have only increased such concerns. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 1980, less than 11% of the population spoke a language other than English at home. By 2007, that number had grown to almost 20%. If you looked no further, you might see this as evidence of a potential threat to the English-speaking identity of the U.S.
But these fears are misplaced. Just like I did, most young immigrants from any country eventually master English. It’s true that the rate of Spanish-only speakers in the U.S. has increased dramatically, and that these immigrants often cluster in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. But a more telling statistic is what happens to such families a few generations after they’ve arrived. As Robert Lane Greene reports in his book You Are What You Speak, it’s the same thing that’s happened to all immigrant groups in the U.S.: within the space of a few generations, they not only function perfectly in English, but in the process lose their heritage language. Even among Mexican immigrants, currently the slowest group in the U.S. to shed their ancestral language, fewer than 10% of fourth-generation immigrants speak Spanish very well. As Greene points out, who needs disincentives to speak the heritage language when the economic and cultural imperatives to speak English are already so great?