County’s language ban could backfire on it

Published 11:41 am Wednesday, February 28, 2007

By By Helen B. Marrow
Ph.D. candidate, Departments of
Sociology and Social Policy
Harvard University
Philadelphia, Pa.
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I heard by national news services that your board (of commissioners) has ordered the removal of non-English signs and informational material from offices and property under county jurisdiction in Beaufort County, after making concessions for federally mandated services.
As an academic who researches and studies immigration (and as a native of Tarboro who vacations on the Pamlico River), I hope that you will consider my voice and the information in this letter, reconsider the ordinance, and make better policy choices in the future that are based on sound data rather than perceived but unsubstantiated fear.
I am a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, and I have studied U.S. immigration — with a special focus on Latin Americans, including undocumented ones — for nearly a decade. I am currently finishing my dissertation on immigration and immigrant incorporation in eastern North Carolina. I not only have substantial knowledge of immigration in both theory and practice — including how Americans often make poor choices concerning border policies and immigrant integration policies when they are fearful and do not have access to data to calm their fears. I also have substantial first-hand knowledge working with the particular immigrant communities living in eastern North Carolina, and indeed, in other “new immigrant destinations” emerging across the United States today.
I am concerned that the board’s decision disregards decades of scholarly data showing that there is no need to worry about the nation — or Beaufort County, for that matter — becoming “bilingual.” U.S. policies enacted against other languages in any form tend to err by conflating a continuous influx of immigrants at any given point in history with long-term ethnic language maintenance. In actuality, immigration research shows that the one sure thing that happens to all immigrant groups over time is loss of their ethnic language to English, not maintenance of it. Indeed, the United States has always been known as “the graveyard of foreign languages,” and data on current immigration trends suggests this will not change anytime in the near future, despite near-record volume in incoming immigration flows.
So while high levels of current immigration are indeed a fact of our American lives today — and while this means that the use of other languages is also, especially among recent adult immigrants who will not become fluent in English immediately — all available data shows that your board’s concerns are unfounded.
Simply put, the descendants of these immigrants will lose facility in their parents’ languages and pick up English instead, even without the ordinance your board just approved. This point is true regardless of whether your county’s educational policies assist immigrants and their children in becoming “fluent bilinguals” (defined as being fluent in both English and another language) or “limited bilinguals” (defined as not being proficient in either).
This point is also true regardless of whether you consider the potential long-term benefits of having some of your county’s residents maintain proficiency in a language other than English to help Beaufort County participate in and benefit from the global economy.
In fact, policies such as the one your board has just approved have actually been shown to create rather than avoid the very situation that concerns you. Most immigrants, including Mexicans, want to learn English. They are usually confused by Americans who accuse them of “not wanting to learn English” simply because they also continue to use their ethnic language when and where it is emotionally or financially beneficial. By allowing them to speak and use their ethnic languages selectively in such a manner, we not only support their economic and psychological well-being, but we also make their transition to learning English easier and more comfortable as well.
In contrast, by prohibiting immigrants from speaking and using their ethnic languages, we will almost surely produce what is called “reactive ethnicity” — a resentment of our attempts among immigrants and, in consequence, a much greater attachment to their ethnic languages and cultures than existed before, combined with a much stronger determination to maintain them despite our best efforts otherwise.
This, in my view, is the most dangerous of the “unintended effects” that the Beaufort County policy will likely have — and probably has already started to have. If you would like to learn more about this process, I recommend the following book, which is written by the two most prominent immigration scholars in the United States today: Portes, Alejandro and Rub/n G. Rumbaut (2006) “Immigrant America: A Portrait.” The authors describe the existing data on language loss among past and current immigrants in more detail, and they also describe various instances in which Americans have unintentionally produced “reactive ethnicity” among immigrants, especially Mexicans, where it did not exist before.
I end by saying that I do understand how immigration raises real concerns about how America’s economy, policy, and culture are changing. Yet at its core “American identity” is, and should be, based on civic ideals and inclusion, not on cultural, linguistic and racial exclusion — which is what the ordinance recently approved by your board embodies.