April 02, 2004

When Smart People Get Really Stupid Ideas

Taken together, the links that Mark posted go a long ways to discrediting the arguments that Samuel Huntington makes in his Foreign Policy article "The Hispanic Challenge." But while Huntington is certainly a figure whose views deserve close attention, I worry that some of the critics have been too deferential to him in this case. "Huntington is way too smart to be rejected without a sober evaluation of his thesis and evidence, " one puts it, and another, while critical, says " If Huntington has the evidence, he may be right."

But this cuts two ways -- Huntington's reputation and influence impose a high standard of scholarly responsibility. And judged in its own terms, his article is meretricious claptrap from beginning to end -- incoherent, confused, and based on unsubstantiated anecdotes and on factual claims that are just plain wrong. If the article had come in anonymously over the transom, rather than being submitted by the journal's founder, it's hard to believe the editors would have given it a second look.

For a point-by-point refutation of these arguments, which are really just recyclings of old canards, you can look at the American Prospect article on English-only that I wrote a few years ago, or visit Jim Crawford's excellent site on language policy, which offers one-stop shopping on this issue. But a few examples will help to give the idea.

Huntington argues that "The size, persistence, and concentration of Hispanic immigration tends to perpetuate the use of Spanish through successive generations." He claims that " If the second generation does not reject Spanish outright, the third generation is also likely to be bilingual, and fluency in both languages is likely to become institutionalized in the Mexican-American community." Hispanic leaders, he says, "are actively seeking to transform the United States into a bilingual society," As their numbers increase, he says, "Mexican Americans feel increasingly comfortable with their own culture and often contemptuous of American culture." He points to the profound cultural differences between Hispanics and Anglos. Ultimately, he says, "Spanish is joining the language of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and the Kennedys as the language of the United States." We are at risk of becoming "a country of two languages and two cultures. It would… be the end of the America we have known for more than three centuries."

In point of fact, though, all the evidence suggests that Hispanics are learning English very rapidly -- more rapidly than the Germans and other groups did at the turn of the century. There's also no evidence that the rate of Spanish retention is higher than the rate of retention for other groups. This was the clear finding of an extensive study by Alejandro Portes and Lingxin Hao of 5000 second-generation Hispanic children in San Diego & South Florida. Overall, they found that 95 percent of the children speak English well and that 40 percent speak no Spanish. (In fact the rate of retention is far lower for the second-generation Cubans than for Mexicans, and a far larger proportion of the Cubans -- 83 percent -- prefer use English among themselves. That should lay to rest Huntington's claim that Miami offers an example of the bilingual future that's in store for America if we don't take action.)

Or take bilingual education, which Huntington describes as "cultural maintenance programs" aimed at enabling students to function without learning English. In fact 99 percent of bilingual education programs are transitional, and even at their peak, bilingual programs enrolled fewer than 30 percent of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) children (the figure is lower now).

An even more absurd claim is that dual-language immersion programs have the effect of " making Spanish the equal of English and transforming the United States into a two-language country." As it happens, the Center for Applied Linguistics keeps track of these programs. There are a few hundred of them nation-wide, which serve perhaps 20,000 students in all -- half of them middle-class Anglo kids whose parents want them to achieve true bilingual competence. (By contrast, at the turn of the 20th century fully 6 percent of American elementary school children received most or all of their education in German.)

Other arguments are based on anecdotal observations that would hardly count as evidence in any serious political science discussion. By way of subtantiating his claim that Mexican Americans are disdainful of American culture, Huntington says:

In 1994, Mexican Americans vigorously demonstrated against California's Proposition 187—which limited welfare benefits to children of illegal immigrants—by marching through the streets of Los Angeles waving scores of Mexican flags and carrying U.S. flags upside down.

That, of course, is the same sort of logic that led right-wing commentators to label those opposed to the Iraq war as "America-haters" on the basis of a few placards at demonstrations.

But the real problems with Huntington's arguments aren't so much factual as conceptual and ideological. He plays fast and loose with the distinction between individual and social bilingualism -- if Hispanics remain bilingual, he seems to be saying, then America will become a bilingual society in which "Americans [will have to] know a non-English language in order to communicate with their fellow citizens." Well, no -- even if Hispanic bilingualism persists (and all the evidence suggests it won't), it is indisputable that second- and third-generation Hispanics will be quite capable of living their public lives in English.

What's really behind this all is the familiar assumption that the natural state for Americans is English monolingualism (perhaps with a smattering of late-acquired French or German as a middle-class accomplishment) -- a true American can't serve two linguistic masters.

This merely rehearses an antique assumption about the link between language and culture, which no linguist would take seriously -- the idea that the persistence of Spanish alone would be sufficient to perpetuate the cultural traits that Huntington ascribes to Hispanics: "the mañana syndrome," "mistrust of people outside the family; lack of initiative, self-reliance, and ambition; little use for education; and acceptance of poverty as a virtue necessary for entrance into heaven." But even if for argument's sake you accepted those stereotypes, there's no reason to assume that they would persist simply because people continued to speak Spanish in addition to English. On the contrary, Portes and Hao found that, among second-generation Hispanics, fluent bilinguals scored higher than either Spanish or English monolinguals in family solidarity and harmony, self-esteem, and educational aspirations.

You might have the sense that very little has changed since 1919, when the Nebraska supreme court upheld a law that banned the teaching of foreign languages until high school, warning against the "baneful effects" of educating children in foreign languages, which must "naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of their country." In the event, though, it turns out that anglophones can come up with plenty of those on their own.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at April 2, 2004 11:08 AM