The terms “American” and “U.S. citizen” are used interchangeably, but it is widely understood that there is more to being an American than possessing citizenship. The late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington noted approvingly in his 2004 book “Who Are We?” that historically, immigrants to this country became Americans by “adopting America's Anglo-Protestant culture and political values.”
Few would quarrel with the notion that being an American entails acceptance of “political values” such as representative government, free speech and the preservation of the rights of minorities. As President Obama said in his second inaugural address, Americans are bound together not by “the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names,” but rather by the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence.
Far more controversial is the notion that there is a cultural component of being an American. Sometimes it is asserted that a real American must profess the Christian (or Judeo-Christian) faith, a proposition we will critically examine in a future editorial. More common is the idea that one cannot be a true American unless one speaks English. Huntington called the English language “central to American identity.”
In a country in which 1 out of every 5 residents speaks a foreign language at home, that assertion will strike many as offensive or just wrong. The same is true of perennial efforts in Congress to declare English the official national language. The latest iteration of that proposal is the English Language Unity Act sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
Yet one can oppose such legislation — and we do — and still be troubled that so many immigrants don't speak or understand English well. According to the Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey, nearly 1 in 10 working-age U.S. adults —
19.2 million people between the ages of 16 and 64 — is considered “limited English proficient.”
That's disturbing, but not because it represents a dilution of “Anglo-Protestant culture.” Our concerns are different ones. First, we believe that a common language is an important unifying force in a country that is diverse in so many other ways. Second, now and for the near future, a mastery of English will be important for full political participation and economic advancement in the United States.
English is, and ought to be, the language of government, even in communities in which large numbers of people have a different first language. The proposed English Language Unity Act would require that English be the sole language used in “all laws, public proceedings, regulations, publications, orders, actions, programs and policies.” That's unnecessary, in part because it's already the practice even in localities with large Spanish-speaking populations.
It's true that under the federal Voting Rights Act, U.S. citizens in many areas, including parts of California, have access to ballots in languages other than English (a provision that the King bill apparently would not repeal). Given the importance of the right to vote, such an accommodation is essential. But the language of national political debate is and will remain English. Even with the best of intentions, voters who lack English skills will be hampered in their ability to participate fully in the democratic process.
Poor English skills also have economic consequences. A September 2014 Brookings Institution study of full-time, year-round workers found that English proficiency was associated with an earnings advantage “at all levels of educational attainment.” The author of the study concluded that “English proficiency is an essential gateway to economic opportunity for immigrant workers in the United States. Yet access to acquiring these skills is persistently limited by a lack of resources and attention.”
In his book, Huntington worried that the U.S. would be divided into “two peoples, two cultures and two languages.” Nine years later, his fears seem alarmist. As with other groups, Spanish-speaking immigrants may not speak English well, but their children and grandchildren do.
So reports of the demise of English as a national language are highly exaggerated. Still, too many residents of this country — including citizens — aren't proficient in the language. As a result, they are marginalized economically and politically. There are also costs to the taxpayers because of the need for translators in the judicial system and social services. The Los Angeles County Superior Court employs about 400 certified interpreters and contracts with 200 more to serve about 85 languages.
So what should be done?
The answer is not to pass legislation declaring English the official national language. Such a law is unnecessary and inevitably would be interpreted as expressing hostility toward immigrants. Nor is the solution to increase the difficulty of the current requirement that immigrants seeking naturalization demonstrate some familiarity with English. King's bill would require that new citizens be able to “read and understand generally the English language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the laws of the United States” — a test that many literate native-born Americans would fail.
Instead, we advocate a more positive approach to encourage immigrants to become proficient in English. It would include bilingual education programs for schoolchildren designed to foster, not postpone, acquisition of English skills, along with a significant expansion of programs for adults. As the Brookings report puts it, “Increasing investment in adult English instruction — through more funding, targeted outreach and instructional innovations — would enhance the human capital of immigrants that could lead to more productive work and better outcomes for their children.”
Such an effort would also help its beneficiaries to be better citizens.
This is part of an ongoing conversation exploring the meaning of citizenship in America today. For more, join us at
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