Ethnic Identity and the Maintenance of Heritage Languages
‘Neither ethnicity nor mother tongue
nor even identities can be treated as
things, commodities, that one can
choose and discard like an old coat at will’
~Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (qtd in Fishman 55)
Broadly speaking, “language policy” in the United States is thought of as a covert policy. Schiffman (2000) writes of the challenges of researching this field, given that issues of language are usually addressed subordinately to other issues. In Schiffman’s view, it is a fallacy to assume that the U.S. government is neutral in regard to issues of language simply because the U.S. does not have an official language; in actuality, the strength of this “covert” policy lies in how the government deals with issues of language in conjunction with, for example, education and immigration policies (Schiffman 211). Despite America’s history of immigration and linguistic diversity, the only overt piece of legislation passed whose purpose was to protect a specific language’s use was the Native American Languages Act of 1990 (Schiffman 263), which stated that protecting Native American languages was the “policy” of the United States government.
From the 19th century onward, English, then, has served as a “de facto” language of the United States, although no laws in addition to the previously mentioned act have been enacted to protect the rights of speakers of languages other than English. Many researchers have pointed out how the federal government did not intervene in issues of language, because the right to speak a language was considered a natural extension of living in a democratic society, and therefore did not have to be protected under the law (as cited in Beykont 1). In outlining the effect of historical events on language policy in America post-World War I, Beykont (2002) concludes that the wars and large waves of immigration to the United States shaped policy in the direction of an “explicit assimilationist” view. More specifically, at the federal level, multilingualism was seen as a threat to nationalistic unity and political strength.
Consequently, federal policies towards language issues at the mid-20th century saw a shift in the direction of educational initiatives. Specifically, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 drew attention to the issue of educating “Limited English Proficient” children--immigrants or second-generation children of immigrant parents. In contrast to the permissive attitude of mid-19th century policies, as seen in the maintenance of German in churches and community schools, especially in the Midwest (Schiffman 221), the goal of the Bilingual Education Act (although not overtly stated) was to provide LEP students with sufficient training in their native language in order to speed up their acquisition of English (Beykont 3). Under federal funding, most programs labeled “bilingual” usually serve as transitional, with fluency in English as...