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Steven G. Kellman


The Montréal Review, March 2022


Zwei Gesichter  (1960) by Pablo Picasso


From its very inception, the United States has been a multilingual society, one that expressed its founding principle in a Latin phrase: E pluribus unum. It is estimated that only 40 percent of the population of the original thirteen colonies was Anglophone at the time of the American Revolution (Shell 688). Later, when Thomas Jefferson purchased it from Napoleon, Louisiana was largely Francophone. At the time they were absorbed into the United States, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were populated by speakers of Spanish and indigenous languages. Hawaiians spoke Hawaiian. Hundreds of non-European tongues were spoken throughout what is now the United States, which, over the centuries, has accumulated a rich body of literature in languages other than English. It includes poetry by Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island; a slavery memoir written in Arabic by Omar Ibn Said; the earliest work of African American fiction, “Le Mulâtre,” written in French by Victor Séjour; Navajo chants; Verdens Grøde, the classic frontier immigration novel, which its author, O.E. Rølvaag, co-translated from Norwegian as Giants in the Earth; Dafydd Morgan, a novel written in Michigan by R.R. Williams in Welsh; the Yiddish fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer; and much, much else. A large and lively body of journalism has been published in the United States in Chinese, German, Spanish, Yiddish, and other languages other than English.  

The United States is a nation of immigrants, refugees, and the descendants of people abducted from elsewhere. According to the 2020 Census, 13.7 percent of the population is foreign-born, which is not far below the historical high level set in 1890, when 14.8 percent of the population came from abroad (United States Census Bureau). Nevertheless, this country has also been the site of pervasive and persistent linguaphobia, an animus against the use of any language but English. “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me,” a governor of Texas who opposed funding foreign language instruction is said to have said.

 On September 5, 1780, John Adams called for the creation of a national academy that would do for English what the Académie Française did for French. Writing from Amsterdam to the president of the Continental Congress, Adams prophesied the global hegemony of his native language: “English is destined to be in the next and succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age” (Mencken 8). If English becomes the world language, why bother to learn any other? It remained for the North American upstarts merely to Americanize, codify, and canonize the language. That was the life-long mission of Noah Webster, who compiled a dictionary of what he called “the American language,” which he predicted would absorb and supplant all other tongues. Given the existence of an American language, it became logical, especially during wartime, for Theodore Roosevelt to equate Anglophone monolingualism with American patriotism. “We have room for but one language here,” contended Roosevelt in 1917, “and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house” (Roosevelt). More than any of his presidential predecessors, Roosevelt, himself a prolific author, was a patron of American literature, and, as Aviva F. Taubenfield explains, welcomed immigrant writers – as long as they were European – to assimilate into it. Opposed to the eugenicist social engineering then coming into fashion, Roosevelt urged national unity based not on blood but but language.

Roosevelt’s conception of American literature, like his conception of American culture in general, was of a linguistic melting pot, the collective creation of insiders and outsiders affirming their membership in “the English-speaking race” (Taubenfeld 146). Roosevelt would not have accepted O.E. Rølvaag’s I de dage (Giants in the Earth), Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Der kuntsnmakher fun Lublin (The Magician of Lublin), or Tomás Rivera’s . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra (. . . and the earth did not devour him) into the canon of American literature.

Before 1917, German was the most widely spoken second language in the United States, but during World War I, when sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and Potsdam, Missouri became Pershing, Missouri, it became illegal to teach the language of Goethe (and Kaiser Wilhelm) in many parts of the country. The governor of Iowa, William Harding, even went so far as to ban the use of any “foreign language” in public – not only in schools, but on the streets, in trains, even on the telephone.  The First Amendment, he proclaimed, “is not a guaranty of the right to use a language other than the language of this country - the English language.” Harding even insisted that God responded only to prayers uttered in English. As he explained to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce: "Those who insist upon praying in some other language . . . are wasting their time for the good Lord up above is now listening for the voice of English." Before World War I, about 25 percent of high school students in the United States were studying German. By 1922, the figure had plummeted to .6 percent, and it has never recovered (Baron).

A popular teachers’ guide published in 1921 offered suggestions on how to observe “Better English Week” by having students recite a pledge that included the affirmation “I love my country’s language” (Elliott 41). Teachers were advised to encourage students to make posters with admonitions such as “Speak the Language of Your Flag” (Elliott 41). If the Stars and Stripes could speak, it would no doubt be in American English, but would it recite the Pledge of Allegiance to itself?

In 1919, reacting to the widespread dread of infection by enemy agents and uncouth immigrants, Nebraska passed the Siman Act, which stipulated that: “No person, individually or as a teacher, shall, in any private, denominational, parochial, or public school teach any subject to any person in any language other than the English language.” The law was upheld by Nebraska courts, but in 1923, a 7-2 decision by the United States Supreme Court declared the law a violation of the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Writing for the majority in the landmark Meyer v. Nebraska case, Justice James Clark McReynolds – who was otherwise one of the nastiest bigots in Court history (he refused to speak to fellow Justice Louis Brandeis because he was Jewish) and later a staunch foe of the New Deal – explained that: “The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue” (Meyer v. State of Nebraska).

Of course, the Supreme Court did not – and could not – extirpate the virus of linguaphobia within the United States. Abducted into government boarding schools, American Indian children had their mouths washed with naptha soap for speaking their own languages. In the Southwest, it was not uncommon for Mexican American students to be spanked or even whipped if they were caught speaking Spanish. Gloria Anzaldúa recalls “being caught speaking Spansih at recess – that was good for three licks on the knuckles with a sharp ruler. I remember being sent to the corner of the classroom for ‘talking back’ to the Anglo teacher when all I was trying to do was tell her how to pronounce my name. If you want to be American, speak ‘American.’ If you don’t like it, go back to Mexico where you belong” (53). An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that: “In Louisiana, first graders who spoke only Cajun French were forced to wet their pants until they learned how to ask to go to the bathroom in English” (Wheeler A16).

As late as 2018, a federal civil rights lawsuit alleged that employees at La Cantera, a posh resort in San Antonio, Texas, were forbidden to speak Spanish, even among themselves. The population of San Antonio, which, until the Texas Revolution of 1836, was part of Mexico, is more than 63 percent Latino, and, though not all Latinos speak Spanish, the language is widely spoken in the city. The punishment for speaking Spanish anywhere on the property of La Cantera (a Spanish word meaning the quarry) was, according to the brief filed in federal court by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “harassment, excessive scrutiny, difficult work assignments, discipline, demotion, and termination.” A manager allegedly disparaged Spanish as “a foul language,” and when employees complained about the English-only policy, they were told, “This is America; so speak English! What’s the problem?” (Fechter).

Advocates of English-only in America might take heart from the fact that currently the percentage of college students enrolled in language courses is at an all-time low and falling further. According to a recent study by the Modern Language Association, language enrollment has declined by 15.3 percent since 2009. While foreign language requirements were being gutted and majors even in Spanish, French, and German eliminated, monolingualism has become the norm for American college graduates. What Yasemin Yildiz calls “the monolingual paradigm” (Yildiz) and Viv Edwards calls “the monolingual mindset” (Edwards 3-5) seems stronger than ever in the United States.

According to an old witticism, someone who speaks three languages is trilingual. Someone who speak two languages is bilingual. But someone who speaks only one language is American. To be fair, linguaphobia is not exclusively either an American or a recent condition. The monolingual malaise is also endemic in England, Australia, and New Zealand. The Bible, whose Babel story in Genesis portrays multilingualism negatively, as a consequence of human sin, records reasons to be wary of strangers making unfamiliar sounds. According to Judges 12, the Gileadites implemented a linguistic test to protect themselves against infiltration by their deadly foes the Ephraimites. Suspects were ordered to say the word for an ear of corn, shibboleth. Pronunciation of it as sibboleth instead of shibboleth exposed them as enemies, with fatal consequences. In 1937, when President Rafael Trujillo ordered his troops to exterminate Haitians who crossed over the border into the Dominican Republic, legend has it that they separated out the Haitians from Dominicans by holding up a sprig of parsley and asking suspects what it was. Haitians, speakers of French or Creole, could not pronounce the trilled “r” and the guttural “j” in the Spanish word for parsley, perejil, and were put to death. Thus did the atrocity – enabled by linguaphobia - enter history as the Parsley Massacre. During World War II, American troops used pronunciation of the word lollapalooza to identify and kill Japanese infiltrators. In addition, during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-199), strangers attempting to pass through a Phalangist Christian militia checkpoint were asked to pronounce the Arabic word for tomato. If they replied with banadurra in the Lebanese pronunication, they were given safe passage, but the Palestinian pronunciation, bandora, could mean a death sentence. In Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), set during the Biafran War among speakers of English, Ibo, Yoruba, and Hausa, characters are killed for speaking the wrong language in the wrong place. Differences over language have also turned violent in Belgium, Canada, Pakistan, and South Africa, among other countries.

In addition, language was a significant factor in Brexit, the decision by voters of the United Kingdom to cancel membership in the European Union. In the midst of the campaign to leave the EU, Nigel Farage, leader of that campaign and of the UK Independence Party, recounted a train trip from London to Kent during which he heard no English spoken. "In scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable," Farage said, explaining his opposition to the free movement among EU nations that was resulting in an influx of newcomers speaking strange tongues. "Whether it is the impact on local schools and hospitals, whether it is the fact in many parts of England you don't hear English spoken any more. This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren" (Sparrow).

To be precise, the problem is not exactly linguaphobia as much as xenolinguaphobia – hostility toward the language of the Other. Many regard the quaint system of sounds and symbols of their own culture as perfectly natural but dismiss any other system as grotesque, superfluous, and sinister. However, those who know only one language do not truly know that language. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had some facility in seven languages – German, LatinGreek, French, Italian, English and Hebrew - observed, “Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiss nichts von seiner eigenen” (Goethe 492) [If you do not know a foreign language, you know nothing of your own]. A Canadian study found that one of the benefits of lifelong bilingualism is a delay in the onset of dementia by four years (Bialystok). But, perhaps more profoundly, the metalinguistic awareness that comes with knowing more than one language results not only in increased empathy and emotional resilience but also a greater appreciation for the elements of one’s primary language. Monolingual Anglophones often stumble over the subjunctive, the conditional, the pluperfect, and even the differences between adjectives and adverbs. Their vocabularies, like their prospects for employment and their world views, are more limited.

Language is one of the most obvious ornaments of group identity. The categories of “Latino” and “Hispanic” are in fact linguistic in origin. They span racial, geographic, and religious categories and instead designate a Spanish-speaking heritage. The disintegration of a united Roman Europe and the rise of the post-Latin vernaculars collapsed linguistic and national identities, so that it was assumed that to be French is to speak French, to be German is to speak German, and to be Spanish is to speak Spanish. Speaking Provencal, Kurdish, or Basque becomes treasonable. Linguaphobia became more virulent as national boundaries were drawn and reified. While nationalism inspired the Mexican muralists, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, and Bedrich Smetana’s The Moldau, it also led to genocide. Albert Einstein diagnosed nationalism as “an infantile sickness. It is the measles of mankind” (Dukas and Hoffman 38). Today, humankind is suffering from a relapse, not only in the United States but in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Romania, Greece, Italy, and elsewhere. When the natives are restless, they embrace nativism, a turbocharged form of nationalism. Nativists believe in the superiority of those born within the borders of their own country and harbor mistrust toward newcomers. To a nativist, Irving Berlin, Andrew Carnegie, and Li-Young Lee could never be authentically American. Xenolinguaphobia is one of nativism’s most salient symptoms.

Latin America produces the most immigrants to the United States, and most of them are indistinguishable from white North Americans, until they start to speak. Spanish or even the trace of a Spanish accent becomes the shibboleth marking immigrants from south of the Rio Grande as imposters. Pride in one’s own culture and language easily shades into abhorrence of outsiders. For Charles de Gaulle, nationalism was a pathologically misdirected form of patriotism. “Voilà ce qu’est le patriotisme,” he explained, “c’est lorsque l’amour du people auquel vous appartenez passe en premier; le nationalisme c’est lorsque la haine des autres peuples l’emporte surtout” (Poncelet 107) [“Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first: nationalism is when hate for people other than your own comes first” (Gary 29)]. In Richard Aldington’s 1931 novel The Colonel’s Daughter, a character named Reginald Purfleet attempts to draw a similar distinction. “Patriotism is a lively sense of collective responsibility,” he contends. “Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill” (Aldington 49). To a true nativist, that crowing is acceptable only in the local language.

Thus, fearful of a backlash from nativists, some American leaders have been wary of using any language but English in public. When John Kerry ran for president in 2004, his fluency in French, acquired at a boarding school in Switzerland, became a political handicap, particularly after, angered over France’s refusal to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the cafeteria in the House of Representative renamed its French fries “freedom fries.” Derided as “Jean Chéri,” Kerry ceased giving interviews in French to reporters from Canada and France and even later, after becoming secretary of secretary, made a point of not speaking French on American soil, where English is expected.  Later, after leaving office and politics, Kerry accepted the title of Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honor. At the induction ceremony, Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault praised him as a Francophone and Francophile and the most Gallic of American leaders: “Francophone, francophile, vous êtes certainement le plus français des responsables américains.” Hailing France, the United States, and French fries, Kerry proclaimed: “Vive les frites, vive la France, vive les Etats-Unis!” (“John Kerry reçoit”).

During the 2012 presidential primaries, Mitt Romney similarly found that his knowledge of French, acquired during more than two years as a Mormon missionary in Paris and Bordeaux, was a liability. Newt Gingrich, Romney’s opponent in the Republican primaries, ran an attack ad titled “The French Connection” that showed Romney speaking the foreign language and even likened him to Kerry. The insidious implication was that anyone who can converse in French is insufficiently American.

For Rick Santorum, another candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, the problem was Spanish. Puerto Rico was about to hold a referendum on whether to remain a commonwealth of the United States or seek statehood. Ignoring the fact that the Constitution says nothing about language and Congress has never passed a bill to specify a national language, Santorum advised: “Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law. And that is that English has to be the principal language. There are other states with more than one language such as Hawaii but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language” (“Santorum”). This is a nation in which anything but Anglophone monolingualism is suspect. That became apparent on April 6, 2016, when Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a political science major at the University of California at Berkeley, was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Oakland because he was overheard speaking Arabic in a phone call to his uncle (Kim).

Donald Trump’s third wife, Melania, is fluent in Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, and English and also makes specious claims of facility in French, Italian, and German. But Trump himself speaks only a primitive form of English. If, according to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” he inhabits a very limited world. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he criticized Jeb Bush, his rival in the Republican primaries, for answering a reporter’s questions in Spanish during a press conference in Miami. “I like Jeb,” said Trump. “But he should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States” (Sevastopulo). Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012, doubled down on Trump’s disdain for languages other than her own. She used an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union to send this message to would-be immigrants: “When you’re here, let’s speak American. Let’s speak English, and that’s a kind of a unifying aspect of a nation is [sic] the language that is understood by all” (Feeney).

During a nationally televised presidential debate, Trump, who began his presidential campaign stigmatizing Mexicans as “criminals” and “rapists,” chided opponent Jeb Bush for responding in Spanish to a Spanish-speaking student. Trump proclaimed: “This is a country, where we speak English, not Spanish” (“Trump”). In contrast to other candidates, in 2016 and earlier, Trump did not advertise at all in the Spanish language media (Goldmacher). And after he took office, the official website whitehouse.gov/espanol disappeared. The new president abandoned the practice – observed by his two predecessors and his successor - of posting information in Spanish. By contrast, the state-run Central News Agency of North Korea, perhaps the most isolated country in the world, maintains a Spanish-language website, as do the governments of China, Iran, and Russia, none of which has a sizeable Spanish-speaking population.

Of course, not all champions of English are xenophobes or bigots. One could make a plausible pedagogical case for opposing bilingual education and a political case for advocating a common language as a force for national cohesion. Some pro-English activists chafe at describing their movement as “English-only,” when they insist that they do not oppose other languages – as long as they are in addition to English. However, ProEnglish, one of the most prominent groups advocating on behalf of the language most widely spoken in the United States, has also fought against other languages. Founded in 1994 under the name English Language Advocates, ProEnglish has so far failed in its quest to have English proclaimed the official language of the United States, though it has succeeded in enacting official-English statutes in several states. It has campaigned against not only bilingual education but also official documents, proceedings, and ballots in anything but English. In 2014, ProEnglish vehemently objected to a Coca-Cola ad aired during the Super Bowl in which “America, the Beautiful” is sung in a variety of languages by people of a variety of ages and ethnicities. Marketing their product as the beverage of choice of a rainbow coalition of Americans obviously serves the corporate interests of the Coca-Cola Company, but ProEnglish complained that, by diminishing the role of English, the ad promoted national disunity. Citing the racist views of its founder, John Tanton, and the fact that its executive director, Robert Vandervoort, headed the Chicago chapter of the white supremacist organization American Renaissance, the Anti-Defamation League warned of the organization’s “nativist agenda and xenophobic origins and ties” (Segal). The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated ProEnglish a hate group.

Hatred of other languages – i.e., hatred of the Others’ languages – reflects insecurity in one’s primary language. French purists try to quarantine English because they perceive it as a threat to the language of Jean Racine, Gustave Flaubert, and Charles de Gaulle. Nativists, who define themselves through place of birth, often flaunt the language of that place as proof of their identity. An authentic Hungarian, insists the nativist, was born in Hungary and speaks Hungarian. By contrast, the cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world, resists being defined only by geographical boundaries and insists on linguistic freedom. That freedom was proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Freedom, drafted in Barcelona in 1996 and submitted to, but never formally adopted by, UNESCO.  In 2011, on the fifteenth anniversary of the Declaration, PEN International updated and streamlined it in a text that was presented in Girona, Spain and called the Girona Manifesto. The most striking of its ten fundamental principles are:

“1. Linguistic diversity is a world heritage that must be valued and protected.          
2. Respect for all languages and cultures is fundamental to the process
of constructing and maintaining dialogue and peace in the world.
7. It is desirable for citizens to have a general knowledge of various languages,
because it favours empathy and intellectual openness, and contributes to a
deeper knowledge of one’s own tongue” (Girona Manifesto).

The value of linguistic diversity and the desirability of knowing multiple languages is self-evident and even banal to the cosmopolitan (and surely to anyone engaged in the study of comparative literature – i.e., the study of literature in ways that transcend national and linguistic boundaries). However, to the nativist, such sentiments are fighting words. Pursuing a Russification policy, Joseph Stalin not only deported non-Russian nationalities, such as Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, and Chechens, to remote edges of the Soviet empire, but, though himself a Georgian, he also attempted to suppress the many non-Russian languages spoken throughout the Soviet Union. Stalin’s campaign against what he labeled “rootless cosmopolitans” was often a thinly disguised attack on Jews, but it was more generally an attempt to extirpate foreign influences, including languages, from Russian culture. An editorial in the state-run newspaper Pravda published on January 28, 1949, at the height of the purge of “non-Russian” elements, denounced theater critics for their “bourgeois aestheticism, sheltering an antipatriotic, cosmopolitan, and putrid treatment of Soviet art” (“About One Group”).   

“Cosmopolitans” are the avowed adversary of white supremacists in the United States, who share Stalin’s nationalist chauvinism, though for them the supreme nation is American, not Russian. The term cosmopolitan shows up frequently on the websites of racist and anti-Semitic groups. But it also surfaced during a tense White House press conference in which CNN correspondent Jim Acosta expressed skepticism about a new immigration policy that would give preference to English-speakers. “Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?” he asked. In response, Stephen Miller, a top aide to President Trump, accused Acosta of a “cosmopolitan bias” (Kamisar). Miller, a Jew, presumably did not intend to evoke the anti-Semitic history of such accusations. However, alt-right commentators, who freely employ cosmopolitan as a term of abuse, often do.

In his book Postcolonial Melancholia, Paul Gilroy calls for “a cosmopolitan commitment,” which he defines as "the principled and methodical cultivation of a degree of estrangement from one's own culture and history" (Gilroy 67). It is precisely that estrangement that disturbs nativists, who suffer anxiety over any distance between the homeland and themselves. Yet estrangement – Verfremdungseffekt for Bertolt Brecht, ostranenie for Viktor Shklovsky – is the governing principle of artistic perception. It is the foundation for the examined life that Socrates insisted is the only one worth living. It is the antithesis of poshlost. Only a turnip can enjoy an unreflective congruence with its own culture and history.

Learning an additional language is an act of resistance to the chauvinists of “America First,” who usually also believe in English First, and often English only. Every language is, according to Frederic Jameson’s metaphor, a prison-house (Jameson), but the native language is probably the most constraining facility. It is too easy just to stay within its walls. Acquiring another language provides the ladder by which to scale those walls, although it means landing in another prison. The transfer broadens one’s perspective, liberates one to think about penology. Translingualism – writing in an acquired language – and code-switching – mixing languages within a single text – are literary weapons in the war against monolithic thinking. The antidote to the monolingual mindset is a set of the dual-language Loeb Classical Library. Linguaphobia is misdirected dread. Multilingualism conspires only against complacency. As the Anglophone United Kingdom’s Royal Coat of Arms declares: “Honi soit qui mal y pense.”


Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he has taught since 1976. He is the author of The Restless Ilan Stavans: Outsider on the Inside, The Translingual Imagination, Loving Reading: Erotics of the Text, and Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, which received the New York Society Library Award for Biography, as well as hundreds of essays and more than a thousand reviews. Among his other honors are the Gemini Ink Literary Excellence Award and the San Antonio Public Library Foundation’s Arts and Letters Award. He lives in San Antonio.


Works Cited

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