LINGUIST List 6.1636

Tue Nov 21 1995

FYI: LSA Statement on Language Rights

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. Geoff Nunberg, LSA Statement on Language Rights

Message 1: LSA Statement on Language Rights

Date: Wed, 15 Nov 1995 10:29:58 LSA Statement on Language Rights
From: Geoff Nunberg <>
Subject: LSA Statement on Language Rights

[Moderators' note: We are posting this as informational material
about the policies of the Linguistic Society of America. However,
in keeping with our policy of not conducting political discussions
on the list, we ask that comments on the content be sent to be sent
to LSA, not to LINGUIST. We appreciate your cooperation. ]

LSA Statement on Language Rights
(Posting on behalf of the LSA Committee on Social and Political Concerns)

The attached statement was prepared by Peter Tiersma
( of the Loyola Law School (LA) in consultation
with other members of the LSA Committee on Social and Political Concerns.
It has been subsequently endorsed by the LSA Executive Committee and will
be submitted for the approval of the membership at the business meeting in
San Diego in January. In the meantime, given the urgency of these issues --
hearings on several English-only bills are currently under way -- copies
have been circulated via the office of Rep. Serrano to the other members of
Congress and by the Joint National Committee on Languages to its 60+ member
organizations (among them TESOL, NABE, and the MLA). It is hoped that some
of these organizations will adopt this or a similar statement.


 The Linguistic Society of America was founded in 1924 to advance the
scientific study of language. The Society's present membership of
approximately 7000 persons and institutions includes a great proportion of the
leading experts on language in the United States, as well as many from abroad.
Many of the Society's members have experience with, or expertise in,
bilingualism and multilingualism. Despite increasing interest in these topics,
public debate is all too often based on misconceptions about language. In this
Statement, the Society addresses some of these misconceptions and urges the
protection of basic linguistic rights.

 1. The vast majority of the world's nations are at least bilingual, and
most are multilingual, even if one ignores the impact of modern migrations.
Countries in which all residents natively speak the same language are a small
exception, certainly not the rule. Even nations like France, Germany and the
United Kingdom have important linguistic minorities within their borders.
Furthermore, where diverse linguistic communities exist in one country, they
have generally managed to coexist peacefully. Switzerland and Finland are
only two of many examples. Where linguistic discord does arise, as in Quebec,
Belgium, or Sri Lanka, it is generally the result of majority attempts to
disadvantage or suppress a minority linguistic community, or it reflects
underlying racial or religious conflicts. Studies have shown that
multilingualism by itself is rarely an important cause of civil discord.

 2. The territory that now constitutes the United States was home to
hundreds of languages before the advent of European settlers. These
indigenous languages belonged to several major language families. Each native
language is or was a fully developed system of communication with rich
structures and expressive power. Many past and present members of the
Society have devoted their professional lives to documenting and analyzing the
native languages of the United States.

 3. Unfortunately, most of the indigenous languages of the United
States have become extinct or are severely threatened. All too often their
eradication was deliberate government policy. In other cases, these languages
suffered from simple neglect. The decline of America's indigenous languages
has been closely linked to the loss of much of the culture of its speakers.

 4. Because of this history, the Society believes that the government
and people of the United States have a special obligation to enable our
indigenous peoples to retain their languages and cultures. The Society
strongly supports the federal recognition of this obligation, as expressed
in the Native American Languages Act. The Society urges federal, state
and local governments to affirmatively implement the policies of the Act
by enacting legislation, appropriating sufficient funds, and monitoring
the progress made under the Act.

 5. The United States is also home to numerous immigrant languages
other than English. The arrival of some of these languages, such as Dutch,
French, German, and Spanish, predates the founding of our nation. Many
others have arrived more recently. The substantial number of residents of the
United States who speak languages other than English presents us with both
challenges and opportunities.

 6. The challenges of multilingualism are well known: incorporating
linguistic minorities into our economic life, teaching them English so they can
participate more fully in our society, and properly educating their children.
Unfortunately, in the process of incorporating immigrants and their offspring
into American life, bilingualism is often wrongly regarded as a "handicap" or
"language barrier." Of course, inability to speak English often functions as a
language barrier in the United States. But to be bilingual--to speak both
English and another language--should be encouraged, not stigmatized. There is
no convincing evidence that bilingualism by itself impedes cognitive or
educational development. On the contrary, there is evidence that it may
actually enhance certain types of intelligence.

 7. Multilingualism also presents our nation with many benefits and
opportunities. For example, bilingual individuals can use their language
skills to promote our business interests abroad. Their linguistic
competence strengthens our foreign diplomatic missions and national defense.
And they can better teach the rest of us to speak other languages.

 8. Moreover, people who speak a language in addition to English
provide a role model for other Americans. Our national record on learning
other languages is notoriously bad. A knowledge of foreign languages is
necessary not just for immediate practical purposes, but also because it gives
people the sense of international community that America requires if it is to
compete successfully in a global economy.

 9. To remedy our past policies towards the languages of Native
Americans and to encourage acquisition or retention of languages other than
English by all Americans, the Linguistic Society of America urges our nation to
protect and promote the linguistic rights of its people. At a minimum, all
residents of the United States should be guaranteed the following linguistic

 A. To be allowed to express themselves, publicly or privately, in the
 language of their choice.

 B. To maintain their native language and, should they so desire, to
 pass it on to their children.

 C. When their facilities in English are inadequate, to be provided a
 qualified interpreter in any proceeding in which the government
 endeavors to deprive them of life, liberty or property. Moreover, where
 there is substantial linguistic minority in a community, interpretation
 ought to be provided by courts and other state agencies in any matter that
 significantly affects the public.

 D. To have their children educated in a manner that affirmatively
 addresses their linguistic deficiencies in English. Children can only
 learn when they understand their teachers. As a consequence, some use of
 their native language is often desirable to educate them successfully.

 E. To conduct business and to communicate with the public in the
 language of their choice.

 F. To use their preferred language for private conversations in the

 G. To learn to speak, read and write English, so that they can fully
 participate in the educational and economic life of this nation. All
 levels of government should adequately fund programs to teach English to
 any resident who desires to learn it.

 10. Notwithstanding the multilingual history of the United States, the
role of English as our common language has never seriously been questioned.
Research has shown that newcomers to America continue to learn English at
rates comparable to previous generations of immigrants. Our government has a
legitimate interest in ensuring that this trend continues by promoting the
widespread knowledge of English. Nonetheless, promoting our common
language need not, and should not, come at the cost of violating the rights of
linguistic minorities.

Geoffrey Nunberg
Xerox PARC
3333 Coyote Hill Road
Palo Alto, CA 94304
ph: 415-812-4711
fax: 415-812-4777
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