“Pressure building for a national language,” screams the headline in the ultra-rightist Washington Times. The article summarizes a report by US English, Inc., which tells us that 322 languages are spoken in this country. Of these, 24 are spoken in every state and the District of Columbia.

Though many would find these statistics merely interesting, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) finds them threatening. So he has introduced a bill in Congress which would block any use of languages other than English in federal government activities. His argument is that allowing any official status to languages other than English will harm national unity.

English is far from being the first language spoken in what is now the United States. Some 150 Native American languages, all of which existed here before English, are still spoken. Spanish was spoken in what is now the U.S. Southwest years before the first English settlement at Jamestown.

Rep. King is presumably not worried about the several hundred Native American people near Tama, in his home state, who still speak the Mesquakie or Fox language (plus English), but rather about the thousands of Latino immigrants who have been settling in Iowa.

The “English only” movement claims that having many languages is a potential source of disunity, so you need “official English” to maintain unity. This is asserted without evidence or logic.

It is true that there are plenty of examples of strife between language communities in modern history. There has been conflict between French and English speakers in Canada, and between French and Flemish speakers in Belgium, for example.

But the worst cases of inter-communal mayhem in recent history have taken place along non-linguistic fault lines. The Bosnia war pitted Croatians, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims against each other. But the issue was never language, for all three groups speak Serbo-Croatian. The Rwandan genocide was a horror, but it had nothing to do with language, for both Hutu and Tutsi speak Kinyarwanda. Intercommunal violence in western India has mostly broken out along religious, not linguistic, lines. And our own Civil War did not explode because of dialect differences between North and South, but because of the slave system.

And one can name examples of countries with multiple official languages in which peaceful relationships between language communities have been maintained. Switzerland, for example, allows official recognition for German, French, Italian and, regionally, two dialects of Romansh, a Latin-based language spoken only in Switzerland. This appears to cause no strife.

Sometimes, where there is friction between two groups speaking different languages, it turns out that it is not the language difference, but some other issue, that is to blame.

The fighting in Darfur is between some indigenous Arabic-speakers versus other language communities, but the fight did not break out over language, but rather (at first) over the conflicting needs and priorities of herders and farmers.

When conflict really is about language, it turns out that it started because somebody tried to suppress somebody else’s language.

The efforts of the Franco regime to suppress the Basque and Catalan languages in Spain produced conflict. In Chile, Pinochet tried to suppress the Mapuche language, and was resisted. In Belgium, there were long-standing complaints by Flemings about intolerance on the part of the French-oriented elites. In Canada, French-speakers have felt themselves subject to discrimination by English-speaking rulers. In Guatemala, speakers of Native American languages have been oppressed by Spanish-speaking elites.

In each of these cases, the ruling classes have promoted language suppression and thus have succeeded in dividing the workers or poor farmers.

Linguistic multiplicity is not necessarily a threat to national unity, but trying to suppress language minorities is bound to cause strife. All the national unity we need can be had on the basis of a common commitment to democracy, freedom and justice, words that can be found in any language. It is the ultra-right groups, not the language minorities, who are working against these things. It is people like Congressman King and the promoters of US English who are being divisive, not Mexican immigrants or the Mesquakies.

Emile Schepers is an activist on immigrant rights and civil liberties issues.

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