True American by Rosemary C. Salamone

Darren Paffey finds that the US attitude to bilingualism has been driven by blinkered politics

August 5, 2010

Debates about language, and the policies and practices resulting from them, are rarely about language alone. Such discussions hide polemical questions of identity, belonging, politics, rights and responsibilities, and recent research shows how contemporary discussions of immigration bring these factors to the fore.

True American by Rosemary Salomone is a valuable contribution to this growing field of research. In it, the author skilfully weaves a narrative of US legislative history affecting language education into a solid rebuttal of the numerous myths about bilingualism on which the relevant laws and bills have been premised.

The author chronicles immigration to the US and demonstrates how claims for the primacy of the English language throughout American nation-building have frequently masked claims for a particular group's racial, national or religious dominance.

She further argues that the melting-pot Americanisation projects of the past two centuries (equating one nation with one language) have resulted in "the systemic failure to recognize the value of languages other than English".

Consequently, immigrants who maintain their mother tongues have been deemed "un-American" by ideologues and legislators, who see a "straight-line assimilation narrative" as the only valid way for immigrants to become part of the American Dream.

Salomone observes that as "old immigrants" from predominantly white, European, Judeo-Christian contexts "abandoned their language and culture, the familiar argument goes, so should the 'new', and the schools should expect nothing less of them".

New immigrants and their children, however, are more racially, linguistically and culturally diverse, managing multiple identities and languages through their transnational existence across political, economic and cultural borders. The view of multilingualism as an asset, then, has been sorely lacking in legislative practices.

At the core of this book, the author shows how the path towards greater (but not complete) acceptance of bilingualism in the US education system has been far from smooth. She asserts that, from the 1968 Bilingual Education Act to the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, federal and state legislation constituted neither a mandate for bilingual education nor a road map towards a bilingual US: the end goal was always monolingual English education.

Under the guise of seeking the best way for children to "function as American citizens", the Official English/English Only movements pandered to myths that Salomone seeks to refute by deploying detailed scientific findings. Among these myths are how willingly or quickly "old" immigrants learned English (far slower than is often lauded), how "new" immigrants lack motivation to learn English at all (federal programmes in English-language teaching are actually hugely oversubscribed), and the now widely discredited belief that bilingualism has negative cognitive effects on children (research shows that it enhances cognitive abilities, flexibility and creative thinking).

In an unexpected look at the cases of France and Germany, Salomone contrasts her US findings with the push towards multilingualism in Europe, arguing that the US has much to learn from this. The main lessons are that a militant policy of monolingualism (such as English Only) can be a recipe for social conflict (as has been seen in France), and that the cases of Basque, Breton and other regional languages add to the debates on heritage-language learning.

"The movement to make English the nation's official language", Salomone posits, "seems to be nothing more than a solution in search of a problem." Anti-immigrationists brandishing the mythical "problem" of bilingualism continue to fuel vitriolic debates, while reactionary legislation reasserts the prominence of English in education and public life. This, Salomone concludes, is to the detriment of US authorities that have hitherto ignored heritage-language speakers as a potential solution to problems in national security, international trade and the US' geopolitical standing.

True American: Language, Identity and the Education of Immigrant Children

By Rosemary C. Salomone

Harvard University Press

320pp, £25.95

ISBN 9780674046528

Published 25 March 2010

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