El idioma inglés, la Inmigración y la Política: The Defense of English in American Politics

In the summer of 2011, I sat in a tenement-turned-museum in New York City.  In the 1930s, an illegal Italian immigrant family lived there.  Prior to that, families of Jewish and German origin dominated the immigrant community that called the Lower East Side home.  The building, built in 1863, housed large extended families in apartments the size of my living room and had nearly 7,000 working class immigrants call it home over the years.  As far as the museum could tell, few of that first generation of tenement dwellers spoke English fluently.  When the Lower East Side was a German community, they spoke German.  When it became a Jewish community, they spoke Yiddish.  And so on.  Their children were bilingual, and their grandchildren frequently spoke only English (as is the “predominant pattern” of the third generation).

This visit is burned into my memory due to an exchange between my fellow museum visitors and the tour guide.  The individuals on the tour with me were themselves grandchildren of the Jewish immigrants who lived in the very neighborhood profiled by the museum.  When they were asked what was different about today’s immigrants, the descendents of the Lower East Side cited that Hispanics “live in their own communities” and “don’t bother to learn English.”  This attitude is advanced by conservative political scientist, Samuel Huntington, who argued in his last work that the current influx of Spanish immigrants would culturally and linguistically divide the United States.  “In this new era,” Huntington argued, “the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants…” (Huntington, 2004).  These defensive views place the Hispanic immigrant as inherently opposed to American culture.  The linguistic component of this nativist stance is a particularly interesting in light of recent research which suggests the influence of the presence of Spanish is divided down party lines.

The national language of the United States is not English.  While it holds a de facto status, there is no law that sets English as the national language of Americans.  However, like the United Kingdom, “upwards of 90% of American believe that one must speak English to be an American” (Hopkins, Feb. 2013).  There is an active “English-only” movement to advocate for the official status of the English language in the United States.  Several states have even made English their official language despite the lack of federal acknowledgement.

The effect this nativist English-only movement has on federal policy reveals itself in one obvious manner.  During almost every congressional session, a congressional bill is proposed to make English the official language of the United States.  Last week, the “English Language Unity Act of 2013” was quietly introduced in both the House (H.B. 997) and the Senate (S.464).  Its introduction barely made a blip in mainstream media.  The chairman of U.S. English, an English-only organization, commended the bill, spinning it away from any alleged anti-immigrant sentiment and painting it as for the good of the immigrants that come to the United States.  “The English language is the one factor that has the ability to unite all residents of the United States in our diversity,” the chairman stated, “Declaring English the official language of the federal government will add an incentive for all non-English speakers to become proficient in the common language of this nation, allowing them to rise up to a level playing field with American-born citizens and have equal opportunity to achieve the American dream” (U.S. English).  In the Republican-controlled House, the bill has 35 cosponsors.  In the Senate, it has 3.  Of the combined 38 co-sponsors, only two are members of the Democratic party.

Recent research by Daniel J. Hopkins of Georgetown University reveals that non-Hispanic white Republicans and non-Hispanic white Democrats respond differently to the presence of Spanish.  Hopkins’ study exposed survey respondents to Spanish language videos and found it to have “… little consistent effect among Democrats while having… [a] threatening effect among Republicans” (2013: 2-3).  This result was confirmed with an analysis of responses to a bill to end bilingual education in California in the late 1990s.  Support for the bill among Republicans was higher in the groups that had been exposed to Spanish-language ballots.  No consistent pattern was found among those who identified as Democratic.  Hopkins concludes that “Spanish itself can become a political symbol, with different meanings for different partisan groups” (2013: 23).  In earlier studies, Hopkins et al.’s findings “suggest that language can foster cultural threat” and that among non-Hispanic Americans who are exposed to Spanish regularly, seeing written Spanish “induces anti-immigration attitudes” (2011: 1).  Combined, this research both connects the Spanish language to anti-immigrant sentiment and emphasizes the partisanship that exists within anti-Spanish/English-only bills.

The picture that political scientists such as Huntington and Hopkins paint – Hopkins clearly, Huntington indirectly through his own alliances – is one of a Republican party prepared to “defend” the English language from the threat of Spanish.  This image is reinforced by the sheer number of Republican versus Democratic supporters for the new English Language Unity Act.  But why?  If 90% of Americans think you need to know English to be American, why do Republicans in particular feel threatened by the Spanish language?  Why does this translate into policy for some Republican politicians?  Wisely, none of the Republican members of the “gang of eight” senators advocating for immigration reform are listed among the co-sponsors of the Unity Act.  I do not know the why of this partisan divide, but even if you agree that you need to speak English to be American, it is difficult to ignore the almost 37 million Americans who, according to the U.S. 2010 Census, speak Spanish in their households.  37 million Americans that the Republican party has an interest in wooing.

I have no way of knowing the political party of the elderly Jewish couples who toured The Tenement Museum with me back in 2011. But they felt threatened by Spanish and its associated immigrants, as did Huntington, as did the participants in Hopkins’ studies, as do the thirty-eight members of Congress advocating for an “English Language Unity Act” whose very title expresses a call to arms.  Early twentieth century German immigrants sang the Star Spangled Banner in German, and the language of the anthem made them no less American, and it certainly did not stop their children from learning English.[1]

Further Reading

Huntington, S. “The Hispanic Challenge,” Foreign Policy

Hopkins, D. “How accents influence the immigration debate”, Washington Post

Hopkins, D. “One Language, Two Meanings: Partisanship and Responses to Spanish

R.L.G., “Immigration and language Stolz, Amerikaner zu seinThe Economist

Schidkraut, D. Press “ONE” for English


I’d like to acknowledge, as a non-Spanish speaker, the help I received in shaping the title of this work.  Thank you.  Any errors, of course, remain my own.

[1] On that note, according to Migration Information Source, “92% of second-generation Hispanics speak English well or very well.”


  1. Excellent post Amy. The idea that just because people speak something other than English at home they cannot be proper “Brits” has always bothered me this side of the Atlantic. While we don’t have so many Spanish speakers we have similar discourses, as you probably saw when you were over here! Loads of my friends growing up spoke other language at home, particularly with grandparents but that didn’t mean they couldn’t speak English as well. I did some research with BME teenagers a few years ago, many of whom spoke another language at home and while I was fascinated with how that worked it just didn’t bother them. They saw no problem speaking different languages in Britain so why should anyone else? How sad it would be if our countries did become monolingual!


  2. […] the same Congressman who introduced the English Language Unity Act of 2013 that I wrote about in March, is not representative of the mainstream Republican party (or their concerns for the Hispanic […]


  3. […] tourist, the Tenement Museum provides an opportunity to engage with history.  Some of their tours (such as the one I did back in 2011 that focused on immigrant experiences in recessions) are longer and allow for more conversation, […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: