Is speaking English a civic duty?

In today’s immigration countries, adherents of the “one nation, one language” idea face a unique ideological problem: to claim that the national language is a sign of national loyalty and incorporation into the nation while, simultaneously, disavowing any association between language and ethnicity and/or race. As long as racism was an acceptable form of bigotry, language didn’t really matter all that much because you were either tied to the nation “by blood” or you weren’t. If you weren’t, it didn’t even matter if you spoke the national language as a mother tongue because you simply didn’t belong.

In contemporary Western democracies, references to blood relationships as a basis for national belonging have become distasteful to everyone except the far-right fringe. However, that doesn’t mean that the idea of privileged access to the nation has gone away – it has just gone underground and, in the process, become more fractured.

Instead, language has become the new boundary marker of who is in and who is out.

One way to turn language into a legitimate-sounding boundary marker is to hype the incidence of residents who do not speak English and to malign them as linguistic freeloaders, as Deborah Cameron shows with reference to the UK.

An article in the most recent issue of the Journal of Sociolinguistics explores how members of the US Congress tackle the same problem. The researcher, Nicholas Subtirelu (who blogs at Linguistic Pulse) used a combination of critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to analyse the 2006 congressional debate concerning the re-authorization of a portion of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates that election materials need to be printed in languages other than English in districts where population thresholds of other-language speakers are reached. This provision is referred to as “Section 203.” First enacted in 1965 to eliminate the disenfranchisement of non-English speakers, it has been controversial ever since and therefore needs to be regularly extended by congress. The most recent extension occurred in 2006 and it is the congressional debate that occurred on that occasion that forms the corpus for analysis.

It is particularly speakers who argue against the extension of the provision – many of them well-known for their anti-immigration stances – who need to rhetorically navigate the tension between English as a marker of national identity but not a marker of ethnicity. As a result, they work hard to construct English as a marker not of ethnic belonging but of civic belonging.

An example comes from the chairman of US English, Mauro Mujica, who was invited to testify. In his testimony he extolls speaking English as a form of civic and patriotic virtue:

When a person steps into a voting booth, he or she is exercising the highest civic duty. Yet, at that very moment the government sends a signal that English is not really necessary to join our National political conversation. Ironically, this message will not be sent to the Spanish speaker in Burlington, Vermont or the Chinese speaker in Wichita, Kansas. It will be sent only to those who live in high enough language concentrations to trigger Section 203’s requirements. In short, it will be sent to the very immigrants who are likely to live in linguistic enclaves where an English-optional lifestyle is a real possibility. (Quoted in Subtirelu 2013, p. 54)

Doing your civic duty means engaging in the life of your community and contributing to the common good: volunteer fire-fighters are often seen as the ideal example of doing your civic duty. Volunteer fire-fighting, like most other forms of civic participation, occurs on the local level, “in linguistic enclaves where an English-optional lifestyle is a real possibility,” if you will.

Participating in elections, too, is a civic duty – as it is a civic right. However, in contrast to volunteer fire-fighting, voting requires participation not in a local community but in an imagined community. Promoting English as a civic duty only makes sense if you delink civic participation from the local and tie it exclusively to the national level.

In the process, it is not only the meaning of speaking English that is transformed but also the meaning of civic participation. From being inextricably linked to participation in the real life of a real community, it becomes individualized. This is particularly clear in those arguments that contrast “good” immigrants with their opposites. The following example is a case in point. Here a “good” individual immigrant from Russia who does his duty because he speaks “good” English is contrasted with the community of Chinatown. Chinatown residents are implicitly coded as shirkers who fail to do their linguistic and national duty.

I just recently came from San Francisco. I was in Chinatown, and we talk about the enclaves. On my way to the airport I rode with a Russian immigrant who spoke probably as good English as I, though with an accent. And I asked him about Chinatown and he said they don’t speak English there. You can’t live there unless you are Chinese. And in walking in the streets, I heard all the young Chinese students speaking Chinese. That may work in San Francisco, but that would not work in Iowa. In order to participate in the community, you must speak English. (Quoted in Subtirelu 2013, p. 53)

The example is patently absurd: an obviously existing community group is exhorted “to participate in the community.”

It is exactly these kinds of absurdities that result from trying to argue that discriminating on the basis of language is not discriminatory. Subtirelu, N. (2013). ‘English… it’s part of our blood’: Ideologies of language and nation in United States Congressional discourse Journal of Sociolinguistics, 17 (1), 37-65 DOI: 10.1111/josl.12016

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • It is surely significant that the Russian in the example at the end is (I’m guessing, anyway), Caucasian, and most of those in China Town are not.

    On a rather different, and admittedly idealistic note –>

    I wish we could persuade members of dominant fundamental groups that life need not be a one-way (language) street, that we all have so much to gain and we lose so much in terms of life experience, richness, etc. by eliminating difference, rather than learning from it, and partaking in it (via language immersion education, etc.).

    Ultimately, there is another deep contradiction in the mantra of linguistic/cultural erasure and assimilation, one that, if it were pointed out as being this, I suspect a lot of people would question: It is the mantra of “Less is more!”

    Come again!?

    • It is also migrants themselves who come to invest heavily in the discourse of speaking English as a civic duty. I’ve had many conversations with new migrants in Australia, many of whom said that it’s their duty to learn English, and those who do not want to, are disrespectful to the nation and thus should go back to where they came from. Linguistic policing among minority migrant groups is as concerning.

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  • I’ve had the opportunity to think more in-depth about this topic since reading this post. I’ve noticed that there’s an interesting ambiguity going on, one that I think is actually being capitalized on by those propagating linguistic norms. “Speaking English” can refer to both the abstract sense of having the capacity to use English or the more immediate, concrete question of what language is being used in communication at the moment. It seems that the two are frequently and perhaps purposefully conflated as I think we see going on with the Chinatown example. I am quite skeptical that young children in San Francisco’s Chinatown would have no capacity to speak English (indeed it seems that the bigger problem is ensuring that they are also literate in their heritage language), but the speaker invites us to interpret the use of another language as evidence of a lack of English ability. This is something I’ve found to be an extremely difficult aspect when talking to others about these issues, especially when someone drops a narrative like the Chinatown one into conversation. I’ve sometimes found it difficult to convince people that the momentary speaking on one language is not evidence of inability to speak another (in this case English). Has anyone else experienced this?

    • Thanks, Nicholas! I think you are right on the money. Most migrants to the US (as to the UK) actually have the ability to speak English; the vast majority of those who can’t speak English, don’t do so because they “resist” learning English but because they can’t (too old, too busy making a living, unable to afford language learning etc.). Most people who are observed speaking a language other than English are then likely to be multilinguals who choose English in one context and other languages in other contexts/with other inlocutors. Unfortunately, monolinguals often seem to have a hard time imagining that speaking a language other than English has absolutely nothing to do with them nor with English …

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  • If you don’t speak Dakota, don’t live in Dakota!

  • Begoña Ballester Penalva

    First of all, congratulations because it is a interesting article, but moving on the issue, I would like to say that it is true and ironic that in this globalised world where there (supposedly) are no borders, the real borders are the languages. It is also true that the people with no language are most of the time discriminated, but we would have to think that some of those people have not means to get this required level of English. We just have to look to Spain to see that it is a country which is supported in the tourism, but the most people do not speak properly English, and we cannot blame them, but perhaps we can blame the education they had and the education we are inheriting.

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