August 20, 2003

A different kind of language policy

First, let me thank Jacob Levy and Matthew Yglesias for linking to Part 1 of this discussion of language policy. If hits are any measure, you've drawn a fair amount of attention to it, and I appreciate it.

This post tries first to make an argument for linguistic diversity without assigning any intrinsic value to languages, and second introduces an additional element into the debate that I think has been sharply neglected: the economic value of second-language education for speakers of dominant languages. Then, I talk about some policy options that I think are worth considering.

It is after 1am as I post this. I had expected to put on a few finishing touches this afternoon and found instead that I didn't like where it was going to much, so I took a nap and then rewrote it from scratch. I tend to do that a lot. Long format blogging is a kind of seat-of-the-pants exercise for me. If I didn't work this way, every post would take a month to write. The downside is that I always find myself rereading these posts and cringing at things I would have said differently if I could edit it a week later.

My boss is back from Sweden, which means I have a paying writing gig tomorrow, extracting research funding from the Flemish Council for Industrial Research. So, although it's more than half done, I expect the third post to go up Thursday rather than tomorrow. It will cover a different normative political theory, one derived in large part from child development theory rather than traditional political or economic principles.


There are really two somewhat separate arguments that have to be resolved in debates over language policy. First, is linguistic diversity something worth supporting? Second, what goals should a language policy try to meet?

Most of the people who write about language politics either place value on linguistic diversity or at least don't think that there's a good reason to be opposed to it. Like most linguists, I certainly tend to place value on it. But there are, of course, people opposed to linguistic diversity. They tend to be anglophones nowadays and far too many seem to regard the existence of multiple languages as the "curse of Babel." Arguments about the inherent superiority of one language over another are, thankfully, no longer very fashionable, but in their place English-speakers will tend to say that theirs is the only viable candidate for universal common tongue, shrug their shoulders and say that there's nothing to be done and it would be better to not resist the inevitable Anglicisation of the world.

It is hard enough to get past this barrier, much less actually advocate support for multiple languages in a single community. It is hard to convince people of arguments in favour of linguistic diversity when they do not feel that their languages are threatened. But, such arguments practically go without saying for those whose languages are threatened.

The authors in Language Rights and Political Theory who do see intrinsic value in language diversity appear to be bothered by the weakness of their arguments, and rightly so. I think some of their arguments can be presented more strongly. Linking different languages with different cultures is helpful, since people are generally more at ease with the case for cultural diversity. It is difficult to deny the aesthetic and economic value of cultural diversity when the dominant popular artistic forms in America derive overwhelmingly from its minority cultures.

Arguments from justice are stronger when integration into a dominant language community is viewed as an expense born by the minority rather than a privilege granted by the majority. We can, in fact, make an extended version of this case on purely economic grounds. Although people usually invoke the vocabulary of "greater opportunities" in the abstract, this term is in almost every case a synonym for "more money." Employment opportunities are generally greater for speakers of more dominant languages, but this is not something that has happened in isolation from language policy. The American state, through the public education system, subsidises companies by providing them with English-speaking employees at no additional cost. If the state did not undertake this form of subsidy, businesses would have to offer more opportunities to non-English speakers and would sometimes have to operate through bilingual intermediaries in order to most productively deploy labour. We can even view the lost opportunities to minority language speakers as a cost to the economy as a whole rather then simply a burden on individuals. Multilingualism can be justified on the grounds that it results in more productive use of labour.

This highlights the impossibility of language neutral policies but it also points to a serious problem in policies towards cultural minorities on the whole: Policies designed to help minorities, often policies designed with only the highest of ideals in mind and with a very genuine intent to improve the lives of real people, can have the opposite effect. I suspect that if there was less concern in the US about how well Latin American immigrants were integrating, their socio-economic status would actually be good deal better.

I think Canadian and Belgian histories support the validity of my case, although the order of events is somewhat reversed. Before WWII, French Canadians were, in the words of one Québecois activist, les négres blancs d'Amérique - the white negros of the Americas. They suffered from all the same patterns of poverty and discrimination that have to some degree characterised Spanish-speaking Americans and at one time the Flemish. During the war, the British needed labour to build weapons, and since conscription did not apply to Québec, the province had a large available labour pool far out of range of German bombers. Hundreds of thousands of young French Canadians were enticed off their farms and into the cities, primarily to Montreal, to work in the factories. The needs of war meant that if factories had to operate in French to get things done, they operated in French. It is this economic shift, and its continuation in the post-war period, that led to the Quiet Revolution and the rise of francophone activism and Québec nationalism.

Belgian history is in some respects similar. In the late 19th century, Wallonia - the southern, French-speaking half of Belgium - was what Silicon Valley was in the 1990's: a global high-tech centre, where standards of wealth were higher than virtually everywhere else. Belgium was a major global player in the coal and steel industry - an industry as central to growth in the 19th century as electronics is today. After WWII, during the years of the German "economic miracle", there was an enormous demand for labour in manufacturing, and Flanders was conveniently located near large German industrial centres. Germans had no particular preference for French over Dutch, so Flemish industries operated in the language of Flemish workers. At the same time, Wallonia's engines of wealth were failing. The steel industry was moving to Japan, and coal didn't fetch the price it used to. Wallonia became poor while Flanders grew rich. It is this economic shift which made Flemish nationalism and linguistic equality feasible.

Alan Patten makes a distinction that I think is genuinely useful in this sort of instance. He labels certain language groups as ones able to support a "societal culture." I think his terminology is atrocious, but that the idea is sound. This enables us to distinguish between the minority language rights we might extend to a relatively small immigrant community from those we extend to a much larger and better established community. Where a language community exists in sufficient numbers and concentration that it is only policy and prejudice which prevents people from having as full and complete a life within their own community as the majority has within its community, I don't see any good reason why that language shouldn't enjoy full legal and social status wherever numbers merit. Insisting on linguistic integration into the majority community serves neither their best interests nor a more general economic interest.

This does not mean restricting anyone's access to education in the majority language, and need not deny anyone whatever limited choice they may realistically have over what language they want to live in or raise their children with. It need not even mean failing to learn the majority language well enough to participate in public life.

Would you believe me if I told you that in Canada there are schools that are entirely in French, where enrolment is, in effect, conditioned on being a member of a specific ethno-linguistic minority and the schools themselves are completely segregated from English language students, yet where graduates on the average score higher in English than the graduates of neighbouring English-only schools? This is routinely the case in French schools across Western Canada. It is not because the French schools are superior. The more likely explanation is, in fact, their exclusivity. Having no immigrants in the school means having no children who don't already have fair English knowledge. It also means that more students come from socially secure middle class homes.

There are other informative examples. In Scandinavia, the level of fluency in English is extraordinary, often better than among second-generation Latin American immigrants in the US, although many Scandinavians in my experience - especially engineers - believe their English to be better than it actually is.

If these things are happening elsewhere, why is it so hard to improve English knowledge among Spanish-speaking Americans? It is traditional to claim that American schools are terrible, that they are failures, that they can't teach anything, etc. This is not exactly true, or rather it is true but not in the way or for the reasons most people think it is. As is regularly pointed out by anti-bilingualism activists, some immigrants have fewer problems with the schools than others. I'll give long odds that second generation Swedish-American children do quite well in America's schools.

So, let me beat on a traditional leftist drum: social inequality is the reason why Spanish-speaking children do poorly both in immersion and bilingual programmes. It's all about class. For many Spanish-speaking Americans, there is a vicious cycle where poor English and a certain amount of old-fashioned prejudice leads to poverty, poverty leads to poor outcomes from public education, and poor response to schools leads to poor English. Someone who immigrates from Sweden to the US, in contrast, is probably white, probably comfortable in English, and probably a professional with a decent income.

The single most important justice-motivated argument for better language policies ought to be the breaking just this sort of vicious cycle. By creating a viable, respectable, Spanish-speaking culture in the US, one which is equal to anglophone culture in esteem if not in numbers, not only is the inequity that arises from ignorance of the majority language reduced but actual knowledge of English may improve. This is more or less what happened in Canada and might have happened in Belgium in an alternate universe where early proposals for personality principle based bilingualism had been accepted.

This line of argument has some limitations. It really only applies to the kinds of language conflicts in generally well-developed countries where there is a clear dominant language, and even then only for those minority languages that are relatively well-established. At the limit, it might serve Inuktitut language activists and perhaps Cree/Montagnais speakers, but it is of little use to those seeking to promote Navajo, Welsh, Basque, Breton or other languages where there are few if any monolingual speakers left and fluency in the dominant language is at least as great as in the minority language. These are the hard cases, where one must rely on weaker arguments for diversity per se, or else on what I consider the weak grounds of historical injustice.

However, I think there are a few principles that can help, and a few fallacies that need to be swept away.

I would offer the language activist the following advice: If there is insufficient local political will to support a minority language, radical efforts to support it will fail. This principle is particularly important to the indigenous minority languages of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Although the Irish public has repeatedly expressed its support for the Irish language, the political will to make it thrive simply does not exist. There is no longer anyone who fears that the Irish will cease to be Irish if they just speak English, and few people in Ireland are willing to accept the costs of making knowledge of Irish economically necessary. The same, to greater and lesser degrees, applies to Welsh and Scots Gaelic. This is what distinguishes them from the Basques, for example. The Basques have shown a good deal more political will because they much more strongly identify their language as a core element of their identity. Many Spanish monolingual ethnic Basques send their children off to Basque language schools, while few Welsh are willing to do the same for their children.

If communities with diminished status have the political will to rehabilitate their languages, they should have the right to try. They should even have the right to moderately coercive territorial measures, like mandatory bilingualism for certain classes of work, restrictions on the use of particular languages on outdoor signs, and mandatory education in their language for children who come under their jurisdiction. However, I don't think this entails a right to prevent children from learning the more dominant language, or even throwing up excessive barriers to acquiring that knowledge. It is not even incompatible with mandating bilingualism. Certainly, people should be free to choose to leave the community for any reason they like. No language is worth saving at the cost of diminished opportunities, but unlike many, I do not think saving endangered or minority languages needs to entail any such risk.

This brings me to the thing that I feel is most lacking in discussions of language policy, not just in Language Rights and Political Theory but in the field in general: The failure to consider minority language rights in the same context as second-language education for dominant language speakers. People in these debates tend not to assign much value to multilingualism for speakers of secure, more dominant languages. Countries spend billions of dollars trying to eradicate immigrant languages in the name of integration, and then spend billions more teaching many of those same languages to speakers of the majority language. Surely, I am not the only person to wonder why this should be?

Jacob Levy is the only person I can think of who even mentions this issue in passing: "A native French-speaker who learns Breton instead of German as a second language trades more options (people to talk with, books to read, job opportunities, and so on) for fewer..." Although on the surface this appears to be a reasonable assumption, it is frequently untrue in practise, especially in the case of large, hegemonic languages like French and English.

I have been through high school and college language studies in America, and very few people emerge from those programs fluent in a second language unless they take more intensive immersion studies in addition to their classwork. The same is true to a very significant degree in France and Germany and much less true of English studies in Scandinavia and the Low Countries. I am convinced, after living in Belgium, that this is primarily because people living in Scandinavia and in Dutch speaking countries have far greater access to English-language media and English speakers than people in France and Germany.

By comparison, look at Canada's French immersion schools. These are special schools where English-speaking children are enrolled in a fully French-language programme. Their investment of time in learning French is as large as it could possibly be. French immersion education started as an option in the Quebec anglophone school system in the 1960's, where it was phenomenally successful. Yet, transplanting this programme to other parts of Canada has been a failure. Children rarely emerge from these schools fluent in French. When I was a student at the University of Montreal, my programme had several anglophone students from other parts of Canada, students who had mastered French well enough to attend a French university. Not one of them came from an immersion school.

We can conclude that an investment of time in second language studies does not produce fluency in proportion to the time spent. Local language access is a significant if not determining factor in actual probability of acquisition.

This uncomfortable fact is uniquely annoying for me. In one year in France, I went from almost useless French to good enough to gain access to the university. In one year in Quebec, I went from good enough to study at the university to good enough to pass as a native. (And in nine years outside the French-speaking world, I have gone from near perfect French to awkward, but still functional French.) In contrast, in two years in Flanders, I have gone from no Dutch to awful Dutch. These situations are, of course, not identical. My year in France was spent almost entirely in language courses, and my first year in Quebec I almost never spoke English except on the phone to my mother. In Flanders, I have a spent one year in an exclusively English-language university programme and one year in a full time job in a firm where French and English actually reach more of the employees than Dutch. As Phillipe van Parijs puts it, stubbornness counts. The legendary intransigence of francophones (which has causes quite different than mere personal cussedness) actually makes French easier to acquire.

Still, this suggests to me that a child living in Brittany will likely acquire more real fluency in Breton than they would acquire in German while living in most parts of France, given the same investment of time and effort. Investment in the larger language (whether larger is interpreted in terms of population or gross economic importance) does not always offer a higher rate of return. It is better, in my opinion, to spend a few years learning Breton and actually be able to use the language than to spend the same time studying German and have little to show for it.

This argument is important to debates over Spanish in the USA. A child in school in New Mexico is far more likely to successfully acquire Spanish than French. Furthermore, if this child continues to live in New Mexico as an adult, his or her economic opportunities are almost certainly substantially more advanced by Spanish bilingualism than by French bilingualism. This is not only because of the demographic weight of Spanish-speaking New Mexicans but also the proximity and economic importance of Mexico to the local economy. I fail to see how a state that claims that studying algebra is in the best interest of children, even though very few of them will remember or ever use it, is making an unreasonable imposition by requiring them to study the native language of roughly one in ten of their fellow Americans and the official language of several of America's nearest neighbours, especially for those children those living near Mexico and Cuba and in areas where the demographic weight of Spanish-speakers is greatest.

I think this claim is important because it opens the way to a more symmetric notion of language rights and duties. There may be some obligation on the part of minorities to learn the majority language, and certainly if the state is to set curricula and requirements on the basis of what most promotes economic opportunities for children, then teaching everyone the dominant language (although not necessarily to the exclusion of their own languages) is perhaps reasonable. But, I should think this same obligation ought to be equally imposed on speakers of dominant languages. If a substantial portion of your community speaks a language other than your own, you ought to feel as much obligation to be able to communicate with your neighbours as they do. Your economic opportunities are certainly enhanced by a knowledge of the languages in use in your community. And, if the state is to decide what is best for children to learn, it is certainly reasonable for them to require the study of their own area's major languages.

This sort of language education is not a pipe dream. It can be accomplished, and the proof comes from the very same bilingual educators so derided in the US in recent years. The first big bilingual education programme in the United States was founded in Texas in the 1960's. It took Spanish and English-speaking children and put them together in roughly equal numbers, in bilingual classrooms with bilingual teachers. The intent was not merely that Spanish-language children should learn English, but that the English-language children should learn Spanish. This programme was very successful at achieving both goals and had no apparent negative consequences on other educational goals. It is this kind of education which is feasible in genuinely multilingual communities, and which at once sweeps away most of the arguments against multilingualism.

This leads to some radical ideas. As someone who has previously advocated some genuinely counter-intuitive education proposals on this blog, let me advance a very different language education policy: All schools should be bilingual schools. Local linguistic dominance and arguments from economic opportunities may be enough to fix one of the two languages, but the other language ought to be any language where there is sufficient community interest. For large minority languages, the economic advantages associated with knowing the them ought to be enough to get dominant-language parents to enrol their children in those schools instead of distant, but perhaps more globally important languages. Failing that, a quota system - where seats in schools for some languages are numerically limited - ought to be enough inducement. If it proves difficult to find majority language speakers willing to enrol their children to learn smaller community languages, then perhaps minority-language parents should be encouraged to pay a small tuition fee used to bribe majority-language parents to send their children to those schools. For small languages that enjoy political support within some community - cases like Scots Gaelic or Navajo - simply offering majority language parents money to enrol their children in bilingual schools with these smaller languages is probably the least coercive way to sustain them.

The very smallest languages in a community will probably be unable to get their own schools, or will have to pay the majority some significant amount to ensure that their school remains bilingual. Otherwise, I don't see how such a school system is linguistically unequal. All students are subject to the same requirements: you must master your own language and another in order to graduate. No one needs to feel more linguistically repressed - at least at school - than the speakers of the dominant language. Freedom of choice would certainly be more secure than under monolingual regimes, and there is no reason to think that any child is being deprived of the opportunity to learn something more profitable to them. There is no reason why such schools have to perform worse on any other educational measure.

This sort of system rests, however, on a different social foundation than the one most frequently found in English-speaking countries. Local access is essential in second language education and the success of Spanish-English bilingual programmes is likely to be conditional on placing the two languages on a closer to equal footing in the community. The same logic applies to language like Welsh or Breton. In order for this to work, people have to be exposed to far more culture in other languages.

Making a case for promoting minority language cultures is unusually hard to make in the English-speaking world because however much minority culture may be the engine of popular arts in America and the UK, anglophones are only barely exposed to foreign language culture. This may sound like liberal elite carping about American provincialism - which is pretty much what it is - but that doesn't mean it isn't true.

As I write this paragraph I am listening to my (fully legally acquired) MP3 collection. Looking over the music I've listened to over the last couple hours, it includes one song in Irish (Chicane - Saltwater), two in French (Myl?ne Farmer - Desenchant?e, one of my all-time favourite pieces of French pop; and Un Jour en France - Noir Désir, the French band whose lead singer murdered his actress girlfriend in Latvia a few weeks ago), one in Icelandic (Bj?rk - Hriti Bjorn), one in Japanese (the ending theme to my all-time favourite piece of animation, Key the Metal Idol), one in German (Rammstein - Du hast!) and right now I'm listening to a song in Punjabi (Panjabi MC - Mundian To Bach Ke). Now, most of my music is in English, and I'm the first to admit that I'm not an especially typical person, but none of this music is very obscure here in Belgium or abroad. Except for Myl?ne Farmer and Noir Désir, I doubt I would have very much difficulty getting music by these artists in the US. But, I think Saltwater is the only thing on that list that I've ever heard on the radio in America. Du hast! was on the soundtrack to The Matrix. Mundian To Bach Ke is fairly recent stuff, so it may be better known in the States than I think it is and it surely gets airplay in the UK, but somehow I suspect that Punjabi rap music is not a growth market in North America. I saw Key the Metal Idol on PBS in California, but it was fully dubbed - even the music was translated. I don't think any of Bj?rk's music in Icelandic is ever sold in the US. People miss out.

That is, to my way of thinking, the all too often neglected element of language policy. Monolingualism has costs for dominant language speakers too. It makes it harder for them to learn languages which clearly expand their own opportunities, and it cuts them off from the currents of culture elsewhere. This is not a uniquely anglophone problem. It applies to a significant if lesser degree to French and German as well, and applied even more to them in the past.

I am convinced that the most effective way to attack this sort of cultural isolationism is through local multilingualism. I want to see countries using the native languages of immigrant and minority cultures as resources. Imagine the impact on America's so-called "war on terrorism" if New York and Detroit were dotted with Arabic language schools full of Anglo kids. The military, the CIA, the FBI and other wings of the American state are constantly complaining about the language barriers they face in the Middle-East. To have on hand a community - not just of immigrants but of fully integrated Americans - who are not only fluent in Middle-Eastern languages but for whom the people and cultures of the Middle-East just aren't terribly foreign or scary - it seems to me that has some real value. The same logic applies to doing business in China, or for that matter in France.

But to do this means rethinking not just schools. It means rethinking the whole way we identify and deal with things that are foreign. As someone with a long history of regularly changing countries, freedom of movement is a more important principle to me than it is to most people. This gives me a somewhat unusual perspective on multiculturalism and multilingualism. I want everyone to be free to go where they want, and I don't want them to have to be afraid either that they will be rejected as foreign or forced to adopt arbitrary cultural norms in order to avoid the charge of being a bad immigrant. I want people not to have to live in fear of foreign languages, either in their own community or elsewhere.

At the same time, I don't want people who speak and live in smaller languages to be afraid every time an outsider moves into their community or a young person moves out. In my perfect world, people in Wales would be encouraging immigrants from India and teaching them to speak Welsh rather than living in fear that summer people from London are going to buy up their homes and make them all speak English. It's true that not all the world's small languages can be saved. Too many aboriginal American and Australian languages are already dead. But many can still be saved if there is both the will to do it in those communities that identify with them, and a reduction in fear and arrogance from others who live with them.

It is a radical vision, but I don't think it's a utopian one. I do think it would be a better world, and that is what is hardest to demonstrate to most people. I think my policy prescriptions for larger languages make sense even if you place no intrinsic value on language diversity, so long as you think that a monolingual world is simply not feasible. In order to justify defending the smaller and politically weaker languages, I have to actually articulate reasons why a multilingual world is a better place than a monolingual one. That means finding a different answer the first question I posed, at the beginning of this post. To do that, I have to delve a little deeper into philosophy and language, and that will be the subject of my next post.

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Posted 2003/08/20 1:31 (Wed) | TrackBack