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Speaking Chicago

A Chicago morning radio show host recently wondered whether seeing billboards in Spanish was good or bad for our society, insinuating that we as Americans should strive to have a common language - English.

Some of his callers said they were appalled by Spanish billboards and could not understand why Spanish-speaking immigrants would not learn English. Others phoned in to say that it is simply freedom of expression and billboards can be displayed in any language. While a great intellectual debate about our society is to be had, the true answer may not be based on what it means to be an American, the First Amendment, or even an official language, but rather, through better understanding of our history.

Similar to the rapid increase in racial and ethnic diversity we have experienced for the past several decades, language has also been exceptionally diverse. Data collected in 2000 and 2008 by the U.S. Census Bureau captured about 95 non-English languages spoken each year in the Chicago metropolitan area. Non-English speakers increased from 24.7% of the total population in 2000 to 27.7% in 2008, with Spanish being the most dominant language (Table 1).

While Spanish is clearly the most prevalent, other languages have made noticeable gains as well, including Polish, Tagalog, Chinese, Korean, and Arabic. Not only do these languages represent those ethnic groups that have robust communities in the area, they are also well represented on a global scale as well. According to the CIA World Factbook, top 10 languages found in the Chicago metropolitan area accounts for languages used by more than three billion people around the world.

Being able to speak foreign languages, of course, does not necessarily mean that people are confined to those languages alone for expression. Contrary to much criticism about immigrants' supposed refusal to learn English, many immigrants do read, write, and speak English to varying degrees, largely depending on when they arrived in the United States.

Many scholars consider one's ability to use English and one's loss of ability to speak another language as measures of assimilation into American society. Such consideration makes speaking English, and only English, as the norm.

Indeed, for much of middle class America, foreign language is merely a reflection of the novelty experience of living overseas during their youth only to forget about it by the time they reach their middle ages. Very often this brief exposure to another language and culture has little to no bearing whatsoever in their lives as a whole. Therefore, those individuals who are truly multilingual are often children or grandchildren of immigrants.

Looking at non-English speakers who were born in the Chicago metropolitan area, there is a glimpse of these children and grandchildren of immigrants, mostly from European countries that have long history of immigration into the region, still trying to maintain their cultural values (Table 2).

With sizable Mexican neighborhoods in various locations in the area, including Little Village, Pilsen, Hegewisch, Carpentersville, and Aurora, it is not surprising to see the rise in Spanish-speaking Americans. Though smaller in sizes, the Polish community also has maintained large pockets of neighborhoods to create an environment conducive to preserving Polish language. Even smaller communities of Greeks, Koreans, and a number of ethnic groups that use Arabic, use religious institutions as venues for their own languages.

In the past, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the Naturalization Act in 1906, and the Immigration Act in 1924, to ban Chinese immigrants, to implement English language requirement to attain naturalized citizenship, and to further reinforce immigrant ban from non-western and northern European countries. Interestingly, it wasn't social justice or civil rights that lifted these restrictions. Rather, it was the War Bride Act of 1945, when mostly white American soldiers needed to bring their Asian brides after World War II.

By 1952, the immigration and Nationality Act removed race entirely as a restrictive criteria in immigration. Clearly, if American nurses wanted to bring in their Asian husbands after the war, the government wouldn't have reacted as swiftly to correct the policy. Removal of race-based restriction in immigration was an unintended consequence rather than recognition of social injustice.

On the flip side, despite evidence in history showing that societal and cultural values aren't as rigidly defined as we believe, history is also often forgotten. On that faithful morning of the Spanish billboard debate, those who complained about the prevalence of Spanish as being un-American and that English is the foundation of American culture clearly failed to recognize the irony of calling in from such places as Waukegan, Kankakee, Mokena and Kenosha.

The American version of English was birthed out of gradual conflicts and resistance and that process constantly continues to change the way we speak, read, and write. Given the fact that a large influx of population into this country ceased to be English speakers is a good indicator of where our language is headed. Whatever language we end up using in the future will also likely to be derived through similar conflicts and resistance over a long period. And no policy, law, or mandate are likely to control or change such shift by the masses.


Kiljoong Kim is a research consultant and doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He welcomes your comments. Read more in the the Who We Are archives.


Posted on May 26, 2010

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