LINGUIST List 15.1717

Fri Jun 4 2004

Review: Sociolinguistics: Dicker (2003)

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  1. Brianna Rauschuber, Languages in America: A Pluralist View

Message 1: Languages in America: A Pluralist View

Date: Fri, 4 Jun 2004 17:05:14 -0400 (EDT)
From: Brianna Rauschuber <>
Subject: Languages in America: A Pluralist View

AUTHOR: Dicker, Susan J.
TITLE: Languages in America
SUBTITLE: A Pluralist View
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2003
Announced at

Brianna Grohman Rauschuber, University of Texas at Arlington


The primary purposes of this book are (a) to debunk the arguments that
language restrictionists in the U.S. use to support English-only; and
(b) to show the advantages of linguistic pluralism. The book is
especially intended for the non-linguist, although it may serve as an
introduction to language politics and policy in the U.S. for students
of linguistics as well. The author, a professor of English at Hostos
Community College at the City University of New York, became
interested in language policy as a result of growing up in a
multilingual home. The book makes a case for linguistic pluralism in
the U.S. by drawing upon linguistic, sociological, and historical


Chapter 1 discusses how language shapes personal and cultural
identity. The author discusses the term 'mother tongue' and describes
the pain that many immigrants feel upon loosing their native language.
She submits that while immigrants must learn the majority language
required for participation in public life, they can at the same time
develop their skills in their mother tongue in order to maintain their
own distinct personal and cultural identity. A significant portion of
Chapter 1 is devoted to the topic of cultural stereotypes formed along
language group lines. The author observes that prejudice against the
speakers of Spanish and African American Vernacular English (AAVE)
leads to stigmatization of the languages themselves. As Dicker points
out, language varieties are stigmatized due to prejudices against its
speakers; speakers in turn are judged by the character of their
speech. Chapter 1 also includes a discussion of the Oakland School
Board decision of December 1996 to recognize AAVE and use it to teach
standard English.

Chapter 2 distinguishes among different paradigms for immigrant
adaptation, including acculturation, assimilation, the melting pot,
and cultural pluralism, which Dicker clearly favors. The author shows
that the popular notion of a melting pot, a kind of immigrant
adaptation in which all immigrants are assimilated and transformed
into a new people, probably never existed in the U.S. Dicker presents
a brief linguistic history of the U.S. to support her claim. She
discusses the lasting linguistic influence of the three major colonial
powers in North America: England, France, and Spain. She also
provides a comprehensive account of immigration from 1820 to 1924.
Among the many groups of people who immigrated to the U.S. during this
century were large numbers of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians,
Italians, Greeks, Polish, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and Canadians.
Dicker notes that many different factors affected the extent to which
each of these groups maintained its native language and culture.
Internal factors affecting language maintenance included the size of
the immigrant group, the length and pattern of its migration, and its
relations with the homeland. External factors affecting language
maintenance included pressures from the larger society to assimilate,
such as racism and religious prejudice, government policies on
immigration and minority language use, public education, and the

Chapter 3 presents and then debunks eight widespread myths about
first- and second-language learning. Myth 1 is that children acquire
their first language quickly and effortlessly. Relying on support
from McLaughlin 1978 and Holzman 1997, the author explains that
first-language acquisition is ''a time-consuming and demanding task
that children work at throughout their formative years'' (p. 86).
Children gradually move from the babbling stage to produce two-word
utterances around the age of eighteen months, and then more complex
utterances by age three; a child's first-language skills are still
developing when he enters school around age five or six. Myth 2 is
that younger learners are better at acquiring a second language than
older learners. Lenneberg's (1967) critical period hypothesis is
questioned on the basis of evidence from Singleton 1989, Genesee 1981,
Ervin-Tripp 1974, and several others. Myth 3 is that second languages
are best learned in the same way as first languages; myth 4 is that
people who fail to master a second language are not trying hard enough
to learn it; myth 5 is that it is necessary for someone learning a
second language to use it as soon as possible and as much as possible.

The sixth myth about language acquisition discussed in Chapter 3 is
that children acquiring two languages at once confuse the two and
learn neither language well. While Dicker allows that most bilingual
children go through a phase in which they mix the two languages, she
maintains that skillful bilingualism develops ''when children have
ample opportunity to use each language in clearly-defined situations''
(p. 107). Myth 7 is that children who come into the American
education system with little to no literacy in their native language
should be placed immediately in all-English instruction. The findings
of Cummins (1979) on the relationship between native-language literacy
and second-language literacy are discussed at length. Dicker suggests
that Cummins's developmental interdependence hypothesis (ibid., 233)
explains why many minority children who are placed in submersion
programs without the opportunity to develop literacy in their first
language perform so poorly in school. Dicker also describes the
difference between immersion and submersion bilingual education
programs, as well as the difference between additive and subtractive
bilingualism. Myth 8 is that bilingual programs should be transitory,
with the first language being phased out as soon as possible. By
debunking these eight common myths about language acquisition, Dicker
hopes to convince the reader that language learning is more complex
than is commonly assumed, and to provide the reader with information
about bilingualism that he may not already know.

Chapter 4 examines the place of language in the schools as an object
of study and as a means of instruction. The primary claim of this
chapter is that ''society supports different educational goals for
different kinds of students'' (p. 115). (Additive) bilingualism is
highly valued for English-dominant students, whereas minority-language
students are expected to abandon their native language in favor of
English. Evidence from Skutnabb-Kangas 1990, Kjolseth 1973, and
Fishman 1966 supports Dicker's analysis. Dicker offers the two-way
immersion model for bilingual education as a means of ensuring that
both majority- and minority-language students obtain high levels of

Chapter 5 deals with the modern Official-English movement in the U.S.
history, factors that have led to a resurgence in the
language-restrictionist movement, description of the US English
organization. Dicker first presents a brief history of general
attitudes toward the use of languages other than English in the U.S.
She observes that the nation had largely a tolerant attitude toward
other languages from 1770 to 1880, with the government translating
literature into French during the War for Independence and the
Articles of Confederation into German after the war. Dicker
characterizes language attitudes in the U.S. from the 1880s to the
1950s as primarily restrictionist, with the notable exception of the
Supreme Court case Meyer v. Nebraska in 1923 (pp.165-166). Following
Garcia (1992), Dicker characterizes the period from 1958 to 1980 as a
period of foreign language promotion, and the period from 1980 to the
early 1990s as a period of tolerance toward minority languages. The
recent resurgence in language-restrictionist attitudes is attributed
to growing nativist sentiment, racial prejudice, the declining
economic status of large numbers of Americans, and political turmoil
abroad (p. 169).

In addition, Chapter 5 contains a scathing analysis of the origin and
underlying ideology of US English, a national organization that
lobbies for official-English legislation at the state and federal
levels. Dicker explains that US English was founded on and largely
still operates on anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic principles, despite
the organization's stated goal of helping immigrants acquire English
(pp. 186-192). The last part of Chapter 5 is devoted to current
language-restrictionist legislation.

Chapter 6 describes the opposition to language restrictionism in the
U.S. Dicker shows that state laws in Hawaii, Louisiana, New Mexico,
and Texas provide for some official use of languages other than
English (pp. 217-224), and that Puerto Rico has so far successfully
resisted the official-English movement. A discussion of organized
activities against official English in the U.S. follows, along with a
detailed description of the 1990 court case Yniguez v. Mofford, which
successfully challenged an official English law in Arizona. The
chapter details two other court cases that challenged English-only
rules in the workplace (Gutierrez v. Municipal Court of the Southeast
Judicial District, County of Los Angeles; and Garcia v. Spun Steak
Company, San Francisco). The chapter concludes with a brief
discussion of the connections among state official-English
legislation, workplace English-only rules, and wage discrimination
against minority-language speakers.

Chapter 7 describes how other countries, such as Canada and
Switzerland, France, and India, deal with language diversity. Dicker
wishes to show that linguistic pluralism does not itself lead to civil
unrest; instead repression of minority languages leads to friction.
Chapter 8 serves as a conclusion to the book, describing how
multilingualism may be fostered among both children and adults, and
outlining the advantages that linguistic diversity could offer to

In the epilogue to the book, Dicker explicitly states the underlying
premise behind the book: ''language is power'' (p. 322). She notes
that language policy is never solely about language, and that the
language policies of a nation often reveal how those in power value
and treat ethnic minorities (p. 321).

The book also includes acknowledgments (p. vii), an introduction
(pp. viii-xvi), a full list of references (pp. 323-347), and an index
(pp. 348-363).


Languages in America is an admirable effort to treat the general lack
of linguistics literature available to non-linguists. It is essential
that scholarship on bilingual education and language policy be made
available to non-linguists, as they are most often the ones who make
government policy on language and education, and as there has recently
been a reappearance of efforts to restrict minority-language use in
large ethnic and religious communities in the U.S. However, as with
any other work, the book has some weaknesses in addition to its

In the introduction, Dicker draws an interesting analogy between the
loss of linguistic diversity and the loss of biodiversity, but does
not discuss the parallels between the two phenomena anywhere else in
the book. Perhaps a chapter on the burgeoning area of ecolinguistics
(e.g. Fill & Muhlhausler 2001) would have strengthened her argument
for linguistic pluralism.

In a section titled 'Language and Making Connections' in Chapter 1,
the author attempts to distinguish 'style' and 'register'. Register,
she writes, ''refers to the type of language used in a particular the people functioning in that context,'' while style
''is defined as a situational variation of language'' (p. 12).
However, there seems to be little difference between 'the type of
language used in a particular context' and 'a situational variation of
language'. Indeed, the distinction between style and register is
still up for debate in the literature: In any case, the distinction
between 'style' and 'register' that the author wishes to make is
unclear. Since neither of the two terms figures prominently into
subsequent sections of the book, it would probably have been better
not to raise an issue that will be, at best, confusing to the

Finally, Dicker might have included more information on language
contact phenomena in the U.S. The public has as much need for a
scientific perspective on Spanish-English code-switching in the U.S.,
for example, as it does for the language issues addressed in the book.

Despite these minor drawbacks, the book is a well-written synthesis of
previous work on multilingualism and language policy in the U.S., and
is highly recommended to the author's intended audience,
viz. non-linguists interested in learning about the arguments for
linguistic pluralism.


Cummins, J. 1979. Linguistic interdependence and the educational
development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research

Ervin-Tripp, S.M. 1974. Is second language learning like the first?
TESOL Quarterly 8(2).111-127.

Fill, A. and P. Muhlhausler (eds.) 2001. The ecolinguistics reader:
language, ecology and environment. New York: Continuum.

Fishman, J.A. 1966. Planned reinforcement of language maintenance in
the United States: suggestions for the conservation of a neglected
national resource. In J.A. Fishman (ed.) Language loyalty in the
United States: the maintenance and perpetuation of non-English mother
tongues by American ethnic and religious groups, 369-91. The Hague:

Genesee, F. 1981. A comparison of early and late second language
learning. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science 13(2).115-28.

Holzman, M. 1997. The language of children: evolution and development
of secondary consciousness and language. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Kjolseth, R. 1973. Bilingual education programs in the United States:
for assimilation or pluralism? In P.R. Turner (ed.) Bilingualism in
the Southwest, 3-27. Tucson: University of Arizona.

Lenneberg, E.H. 1967. Biological foundations of language. New York:

McLaughlin, B. 1978. Second-language acquisition in
childhood. Hillsdale: Laurence Erlbaum.

Singleton, D. 1989. Language acquisition: the age factor. Clevedon:
Multilingual Matters.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. 1990. Language, literacy, and minorities. London:
The Minority Rights Group.


Brianna Grohman Rauschuber completed an M.A. in linguistics at the
University of Texas at Arlington in May 2004. She plans to begin work
on a Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin in Fall
2004. Her research interests include socio-historical linguistics,
contact linguistics, bilingualism, and code-switching.
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