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Review of  Languages in America

Reviewer: Brianna G Grohman
Book Title: Languages in America
Book Author: Susan J. Dicker
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 15.1717

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Date: Fri, 4 Jun 2004 13:49:48 -0700 (PDT)
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

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 press.

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 bilingualism.

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 strengths.

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

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 non-linguist.

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 49.222-51.

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: Mouton.

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: Wiley.

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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