SOTU's Jake Tapper interviews Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin: Immigrants should speak English
01:33 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and Western civilization at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

McWhorter: English isn't under siege, and the fear of Spanish expressed by Sarah Palin and others is about xenophobia against Latinos.

Adults who emigrate to another country typically have trouble learning the language, but their children do fine, he says

CNN  — 

Sarah Palin is hardly alone in her sense of some threat to the hegemony of English in the United States.

John McWhorter

You know the drill – Jeb Bush answers a question in comfortable Spanish, and Palin, after some perfunctory compliments that Bush’s conversational Spanish will be good for connecting to Latinos, gets in that here in the United States we need to “speak American.”

The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it corresponds to no crisis. There hasn’t been any documented tendency for native-born Americans to be uncomfortable in English. Those born here to non-English speaking parents speak their parents’ language not as well – if at all – and just as often do not pass it on to their own children.

In Benjamin Franklin’s time, it was German that one heard as often as we hear Spanish these days, and even Franklin was given to wondering whether German was taking over. We chuckle at the notion now – one of the rare times that even the venerable Franklin was off-base.

Well, here we are 200 years later looking at immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries and worrying about English, a language that has had no problem taking over the whole world, but is apparently on the ropes in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.

Now, none of this is to say that we don’t hear plenty of people who are better at Spanish than English. They are people who immigrated as adults – humans aren’t as good at learning languages after their early teens. One will expect an accent, problems with idioms, little mistakes, and so on. However, their children will speak just like the rest of us.

Anyone who has problems hearing people who came here at 40 speaking shaky English needs to imagine how well they themselves would do learning Mandarin upon moving to China at 35, or even Spanish moving to Mexico at 25. Then, imagine someone there making comments to the media about how people like you need to talk “the way we do,” and bristling when public figures address you in English.

What it comes down to is this. We Americans think it’s really cool when someone can speak two languages. It’s great if they learned one in college or beyond. It’s even cool if they speak a language we have no particular feelings about natively – Hindi, Greek, Swahili, Albanian.

Yet somehow when someone speaks native Spanish and not-too-shabby English, or even when they grew up here and speak both languages just fine but use Spanish more with their family and friends, many Americans get uneasy. Somehow that doesn’t count as “bilingual” – that’s somebody “not speaking American.”

And no, the issue is not merely that some people get itchy worrying that someone speaking a foreign language might be talking about them. Notice, almost no one says that about Indian immigrants speaking Bengali or Koreans talking among themselves.

No, this worry seems to come up mainly when it’s people speaking Spanish, and one can’t help detecting a reason. There is some sense that Spanish alone is a threat to English. But what in the world could constitute a threat to this language, here in the United States or anywhere on Earth? Linguists, anthropologists and politicians worldwide are much more concerned with English as a linguistic kudzu that eats up smaller languages relentlessly.

The whole idea that the American language is under threat – I mean, think about it: really? – is like someone calling for Americans to use soap in the shower. It’s a noncrisis no one would ever think of pretending to worry about under other conditions. And it’s hard not to suppose that the conditions we are actually under include a degree of xenophobia against Latinos. “Speak American” is code for “Don’t be talking like those people.”

Just as Barack Obama has to keep it quiet that he once spoke Indonesian to avoid seeming “Muslim,” Jeb Bush is supposed to hold off on the Spanish thing in public, regardless of his wife being a native Spanish speaker, to respect the hegemony of “American” in our great land – in what once was billed admiringly as an immigrant nation.

These are, I’m afraid, dismissible insights indeed.

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