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Learning from History

Terrence Wiley, Arizona State University

A portion of this paper was presented in "Overcoming the Legacy of Language Policies that Engender Language Shift: An Important Role for the Universities," presented at the University of California Consortium Heritage Language Institute at UCLA, June 22-26, 2002, and was summarized in UC Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching, 2(1), 1-2

Two broad questions related to intergenerational heritage language transmission in the United States, or the lack thereof, draw from some of the major empirical, historical, and theoretical literature related to language assimilation and retention. These questions are framed broadly to draw on and critique extant literature as a starting point for more specific research.

Language demographer, Calvin Veltman (1999), has argued, "the rates of language shift to English are so high that all minority languages are routinely abandoned, depriving the United States of one type of human resource that may be economically and politically desirable both to maintain and develop"(p. 58 ). Language loss is also prevalent among speakers of Spanish, the nation's second major language. Explaining why language loss should be the norm appears to be problematic because, "any U.S. immigrant groups have shown characteristics that should have been favorable to the maintenance of ethnic languages"( Veltman, 1999, p. 60). Thus, the problem of explaining language loss in a nation in which a substantial portion of the population traces its origins to immigrants or indigenous peoples who once spoke other languages merits closer scrutiny. German, for example, which once was the nation's number two language, provides an interesting case for reflection.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries German initially enjoyed conditions favorable for language retention along with the development of English bilingualism. These included both a steady flow of immigrants and institutional support both from churches and schools. A century later, however, German, as the 1990 U.S. Census revealed, was on the decline. Of the "Americans who reported their ethnic ancestry, 58 million people claimed German ancestry in whole or part, whereas German was only spoken by 1.5 million people"(Veltman, 1999, p. 60). To what can this remarkable loss of heritage language be attributed? One of the major historians of American bilingualism, Kloss (1998), saw it to be largely a result of the "absorbing power" of American English.

It is possible to view language shift to English as a mindless mechanical process. It is, however, more useful to consider the social, political, and historical contexts of language immigration and language contact to understand some of the challenges confronting the maintenance of heritage languages. In the case of German, for example, although many people of German ancestry acquired English, German bilingualism was thriving in the United States until the entry of the United States into World War I. German was widely used in public and private schools, churches, and local newspapers. As the United States entered the war in Europe against German, there was a widespread xenophobic attack on all things German, which was accompanied by a fundamental shift in educational language policies. German requirements for college were dropped, and in some cases, German departments at universities were closed (Wiley 1998). The use of German and other foreign languages was outlawed in 34 states between 1917 and 1999. German enrollments plummeted. Between 1915 and 1922, German language instruction in high schools declined from a peak of 324,000 students in 1915 to fewer than 14,000 students in 1922, and between 1915 and 1948, German dropped as a subject from nearly one-fourth of all high school students to less than one percent (Leibowitz 1971).

The German language lost ground rapidly for three major reasons: (1) given two world wars between the United States and Germany, the language became stigmatized, which resulted in (2) restrictive languages policies. In addition, (3) German immigration declined significantly (Wiley 1998). Even as German declined, Spanish was on the rise. Spanish, however, did not surpass German as the major second language in the U.S. until the 1970 U.S. Census, when over 7 .8 million reported speaking Spanish compared to the nearly 6.1 million who retained German. However, Spanish too felt the impact of the attack on German. The Americanization movement (1914-1925), with the restrictive English-only policies that accompanied it, also had a significant impact on other language groups. Speakers of most European languages were affected as were those who spoke Asian languages such as Japanese (see Tamura 1993). Spanish-speaking people of Mexican-origin were particularly targeted in a climate of intolerance toward any use of their native tongue (see Menchaca and Valencia 1990).

After three decades of allowing a modest use of mother-tongue education to facilitate the transfer to education in English, we are witnessing a return to a restrictive policy climate toward the use of HLs in public schools in many states, particularly in California with its passage of Proposition 227, and in Arizona with Proposition 203, with a similar restrictive ballot measure in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, there continues to be interest in maintaining HLs in the United States. Even as Spanish-English bilingual programs are attacked in a number of states, amidst a K-12 policy climate that is increasingly unfriendly to building on the language resources that HL speakers have, the universities can play a major role in offering a second change to individual learners, while helping the nation rebuild its linguistic resources. By so doing, they can play a major role in reversing the legacy of policies that have engendered language loss.

The unique features of the circumstances lending themselves to maintenance and loss among speakers of German and Spanish in the United States are perhaps better understood than most, but even so, they warrant further study. All the more, the conditions affecting many other HLs in the United States likewise merit historical case analyses.

Question 1: Given the extent of immigrant and indigenous language diversity in the U.S., currently and historically, why have some language groups been more likely to retain their languages, or retain them longer, than others? More specifically, what can we learn from a comparative study of case histories and the contemporary experiences of various groups (immigrant and indigenous) that might better inform educational language policies in promoting HLs today?

  • What are the factors that have promoted or hindered the retention of language diversity across generations among various groups?
  • What was the initial and subsequent disposition of the dominant/receiving society toward the language minority group that might influence its disposition toward English and its HL (Benham and Heck 1998; Hernández-Chávez 1994; Kloss 1998; Leibowitz 1969, 1982; Macías 1999; Tamura 1993; Tatalovich 1995; Wiley 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002)?
  • What stance have various language minority groups had toward the retention of their own HLs (Kloss 1998; Leibowitz 1973; Tamura 1993; Wiley 1998, 2000)?
  • What role might intra-group "folk theories" of success have in influencing language minority groups' language retention (Gibson and Ogbu 1991; Ogbu 1982)?

Question 2: Veltman (1983, 1988, 1999) offers a compelling empirically supported argument, which concludes that rapid language shift and linguistic assimilation into English occurs, without exception, across language minority groups in the United States. What are the major policy implications of his argument and evidence for the prospects of promoting HLs in the U.S.?

  • What assumptions regarding language use and dominance does Veltman make in framing his research?
  • What additional factors might be considered in addition to those offered by Veltman?

The value of HLs as perceived by governmental agencies and the public at large tends to vary greatly based on a variety of issues that are both internal and external to the HL groups themselves. Case histories within the broader context of the history of U.S. language policies help to explain the contexts in which HL retention has been valued or opposed. The differential treatment (positive, negative, or indifferent) of past, and recent, language minority groups, as well as their responses to various treatments is instructive in helping us to understand those factors that promote or inhibit the retention of their heritage languages.

Language Resource Center