Language, Language Policy, and Citizenship


The Rise of Know-Nothingism



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The Rise of Know-Nothingism. During the 19th century in America, a movement developed that earlier on is referred to as ‘Nativism’ or later, as Know-Nothingism.12 This movement arose when immigration from Ireland began in earnest, and because the Irish were Catholic, it acquired a taint of anti-Catholic, anti-foreign rhetoric that at times reeked of general xenophobia and racism. Irish immigration did not stimulate much concern about language differences, though some Irish immigrants spoke Gaelic and not English, but later, with the arrival of Germans in large numbers, and of other groups from southern and eastern Europe, who were not only not Protestant, but not even Christian, Know-Nothingism took these issues head on as well. Kloss documents the development of nativism as being stimulated by issues over schooling, and over whether community taxes should go to support education in schools conducted by Catholics, or in languages other than English.13 The American ‘Public School Movement’ developed at the 1830’s and 1840’s and along with it, a notion arose that the role of schools was to Americanize the children of immigrants, and thus make good ‘citizens’ of them. Gradually the idea that this had to occur through the medium of English also gained currency. The twinning of these two issues—citizenship and language, was accomplished.

Mertz (1982) documents the development of what she calls a ‘folk-Whorfian notion’14 about the necessity of knowing English in order for non-citizens to acquire citizenship. Her study shows that this idea gained currency in popular culture, was picked up on in the courts, and became law without ever having been discussed in Congress. In the US, immigration law has been primarily non-statutory, i.e., it has evolved through precedent, the precedents then eventually become statutory, and the statutes then confirm what has been arrived at by precedent. By 1897, the test for American citizenship had to be taken in English, and no substitute, such as a test in Finnish or Urdu, can be allowed.15

As Mertz puts it,

‘A folk theory of the effect of language on thought underlies decisions made in U.S. courts regarding language law. Previous work on folk theory has shown an internal structuring by which a premise entails subsequent terms, consistent within the framework of the folk theory's logic. An analysis of metapragmatic statements in U.S. case law materials reveals a crudely "Whorfian" premise from which a common folk theory of language builds. This theory, evident in judges' decisions and dissents, predicates the ability to understand U.S. political concepts on fluency in English. Because becoming a ‘citizen’ requires comprehension of these political concepts, the folk theory links identity as a U.S. citizen with the ability to speak the English language. The appearance of a "Whorfian" premise in this folk theory also lends support to the suggestion by cognitive anthropologists that scientific theories are typically systematized adaptations of folk theories.’ (Mertz 1982).

Thus in a case decided by the Supreme Court of Wyoming, it was ruled that translation of US political concepts into other languages could not be deemed to be equivalent to those documents in their English original. In the words of Mertz,

‘The fundamental [...] tenet of this folk theory is that languages shape the range of conceptualization of their speakers. U.S. political concepts were thought to be inextricably entwined with the English language; the concepts could not be understood unless one spoke English. The fundamental impossibility of translation of these concepts into other languages appears as an underlying assumption in [the] 1897 case:


‘It needs no argument to establish that a translation is not identical with the original. No matter how similar it may be in meaning, it is plain it can not be identical [...]. A copy of a Finnish, Russian, or German translation would not be a copy of the constitution (Supreme Court of Wyoming 1897:153).

As we can see, this decision arises out a folk theory—not substantiated by research or facts--according to which it was just simply true, and in ‘need of no argument’ that knowledge of American political concepts obtained via another language were not the same as knowledge of these concepts acquired via English. Kloss documents the correlation among the decline of German immigration (which apparently went unnoticed, but which peaked in 1882), the increase in immigration rates of other groups, and the rise of the folk notion—which firmly cemented the logic, already inherent in the public school ‘Americanization’ idea--that children needed to know English first, and that the presence of another language ‘in their heads’ was anathema to being able to conceptualize American ideas. The similarity of these ideas to those entertained by the French (Bourdieu 1982) about the need to displace other, “inferior” linguistic systems, is striking.

By 1906, the folk theory had been codified in US statutory law:

‘The Nationality Act of 1906 required aliens seeking naturalization to speak English; this stipulation was codified in the Nationality Act of 1940. The additional requirement of literacy in English was added by the Internal Security Act of 1950’ (Mertz 1982).

But it is in the weight of the cataclysm of World War I, the role of German language schools, and the rights of German-Americans to use their language in religiously supported parochial schools, where US law takes a decisive turn. The United States entered WWI in April 1917, and almost immediately, anti-German feeling arose to such a pitch that the German language was prohibited in many states in all educational institutions, whether public or private. Some states prohibited German, others prohibited German for ``regular" subjects", or all non-English instruction; some prohibited non-English in elementary schools only. In many of these strictures, it was not by legal measures that the ban on German took place, but by gubernatorial edicts, or ‘resolutions’ of legislatures, or even by decrees of the so-called ‘State Councils of Defense,’ a kind of civil-defense body created in various states.16

As of April 1917 onward, and even after the war was over, ‘foreign’ languages would continue to be chased from the elementary schools in state after state, and relegated to high-school instruction only. Since at that juncture in US history hardly more than 5% of the population even went on to attend high school, foreign language instruction was essentially abolished for 95% of the population. The covert assumption was that `foreign' language was not a necessary part of any child's education, but useful only for adults, especially for those college-bound.17

Notice that only English is not a foreign language—all others are ``foreign". After the war the campaign of ‘Americanization through Schooling’ intensified, under the slogan of the ‘right of the child’ to an education in English. But not all German-language schools took this lying down; a teacher named Meyer, who taught in a Lutheran parochial school in Nebraska, decided that even if regular classes had to be taught in English, he could tutor a child in German after hours.18 He was wrong. The State of Nebraska took him to court. And the Lutherans fought back.

The Nebraska District of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod filed suit against the state of Nebraska in a case that was first known as Nebraska District of Evangelical Lutheran Synod v. McKelvie, and after it went to the US Supreme Court, as Meyer v. Nebraska . The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled against the Lutherans (Nebraska Reports 104:93-104), so the Lutherans took the case further. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 1923 (Meyer vs. Nebraska) that forbidding the teaching of a language other than English until the 8th grade was a violation of the constitutional right to liberty under the the 14th amendment. The court also struck down similar Ohio and Iowa laws. Kloss has referred to this as the ‘Magna Carta’ of the private ‘nationality’ school, but we would be well-advised to ask ourselves what the decision has in fact allowed if the de jure situation does not match up with de facto practice.

The US Supreme Court decision, however, did not justify or rule on the grounds of the right of groups--a claim of the national minority to its native language, or the right of an individual (parent or child) to use a native language--which a European court certainly would have done. The decision protected only the right of a child to learn any desired ‘foreign language’; the right of parents to have a child learn any subject matter that was not a ‘threat’ to the state; and the right of language teachers to exercise their profession.

Note that the Court thereby defined instruction in the mother tongue (if the mother tongue was one other than English) as ‘Foreign language instruction.’ Protection granted in the Constitution, the Court ruled, extends to all—-to those who speak English as well as those who speak another tongue. Therefore, language rights were individually protected but, as Kloss notes, only for adults. Children do not have a right to language maintenance, only to second-language learning. And, it is a personal right, not the right of a group or that of a group confined to a territory.

Due to five or six-year hiatus when ‘foreign’ language teaching was forbidden (i.e. between 1917 and 1923), the net result, however, was that even if these rights were guaranteed and restored, the medium of instruction had switched to English in all these schools. And as Kloss points out, it is a peculiar phenomenon in America that a loss to English is never regained—no immigrant group that ever assimilates to English ever shifts back to another language, nor do any of its institutions. Schools, both parochial and public, continued after 1923 to teach most subjects in English, but some parochial schools of various denominations used German (or whatever other languages were affected) for religious instruction only. Some schools and churches (e.g. the German Evangelical Synod, previously known as Die Evangelische Synode des Westens) saw the handwriting on the wall and switched completely to English, converting as early as 1922, but completely by 1929 (Schiffman 1987, 1996)19.

It is curious that Kloss views this court decision as an example of linguistic ‘tolerance’ and therefore granting a ‘right’, when in fact the victory was Pyrrhic. As I stated in the Moldova paper,


‘Kloss’ analysis of tolerance, therefore, is that the US was basically and generously tolerant towards linguistic minorities, except in times of war, or in extremely isolated instances of xenophobic acts directed at individuals who also, he claims, were in most cases not Caucasian. That is, linguistic intolerance was linked with racial and/or ethnic intolerance, but alone, there was not much linguistic intolerance. Kloss even goes so far as to say that the decision in Meyer v. Nebraska, which overturned various state statues and decrees legitimizing intolerance and oppression of non-English languages (1923) established a precedent for and legitimized or enshrined tolerance. [...] He sees it as legitimizing rights that were temporarily abrogated, and giving linguistic minorities freedom to continue this ‘Narrow Sphere’ right. What he does not see, and in fact does not understand, is that though the Supreme Court overturned the statutes and restrictions, it did not (nor could it) do anything to nullify the intolerance that existed in American society, and was the original root cause of the anti-German bans during the war period.’ (Schiffman 2002:254)
In other words, the bans on language use were part and parcel of the folk theory that Mertz delineates—they ‘temporarily’ interrupted the right to learn or use a particular language, but in fact the outcome was a permanent banning of ‘foreign’ language from elementary education, and a general cooling of tolerance toward other languages. The fact that the U.S. had entered a period of isolationism following World War I, a period of witch-hunting and red-baiting, a reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan and other nativist groups, all meant that the notion that English and citizenship were inexorably connected was solidified. No legislation to officialize English was necessary, then or now—cultural mores, attitudes, and prejudices take care of this in America.

The fact that native-born Americans are not required to learn what foreign-born candidates for citizenship are required to know is illuminating. Native-born Americans are not required to be literate, and are not even required to know English, or to be able to define such notions as ‘polygamy’ or ‘anarchy’, as was made clear in another citizenship case, that of Vasicek v. Missouri, but such arguments fall on deaf ears, as Mertz points out:


‘It is of no avail to urge that the native-born need not possess these qualifications. The alien is only entitled to citizenship when he proves he possesses the statutory requisites (United States District Court, District of Oregon 1945:376)’.
More is required of candidates for citizenship, then, or indeed for candidates for driver’s licenses in certain states such as Alabama, where speakers of English who happen to be illiterate are provided with helpers who can read the test for them, but literate speakers of Spanish or other languages can not be allowed to enjoy such assistance (Schiffman 2002).20 Citizenship in America, in other words, involves certain assumptions: to be born on U.S. soil and to have the English language firmly embedded in ones head is preferable to being born elsewhere and being able to define abstruse concepts in another language. That this assumption is based only on folk belief systems is irrelevant. It is now enshrined in immigration law, by precedent as well as by statute, and nothing is about to change that.



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