Linguistic Culture and Language Policy

Routledge, 1996
Summary, Chap. 8
Harold F. Schiffman
University of Pennsylvania

The main findings of this work are that language policy is primarily a social construct, and as such rests primarily on other conceptual elements---belief systems, attitudes, myths, the whole complex that we are referring to as linguistic culture. This also recognizes the role of language as the main vehicle for the construction, replication, and transmission of culture itself. And though language itself is a cultural construct, this does not imply that it can be deconstructed, changed, or radically altered by the application of particular political scrutinies of one sort or another. Language (and languages) mean different things to different people, and policy-formulation is often vague and ill-defined. Perhaps the main contribution of this book is to view language policy as not only the specific, the overt, the explicit, the de-jure embodiment of rules in laws or constitutions, but as a broader entity, rooted in covert, implicit, grass- roots, unwritten, de facto practices that go deep into the culture. In the end, every language policy is culture-specific, and it is in the study of linguistic culture that we will come to understand why language policies evolve the way they do, why they work (or do not work) the way they are planned to work, and how peoples' lives are affected by them. The real challenge in the study of language policy is that there are so many variables that must be dealt with, and that simplistic notions or one-note theories cannot hope to capture the complexity that is language and linguistic culture.

In polities such as India, however, traditional multilingualism is in conflict with foreign models that have been shown to be bankrupt in their home countries. The Soviet model of language policy was borrowed lock, stock and barrel in post-Independence India, but it has failed (as it failed in the former USSR), and the natural multilingualism, code-switching, diglossia and other long-standing complex linguistic behaviors of the region have reasserted themselves. Indeed more people are now said to be studying English in India than before Independence, while the legal status of English has had the pins knocked out from under it. With very little status support, English continues to survive and flourish in India. In the Tamil area, much heat and very little light are generated over language issues. The great hope that purification of Tamil would return Tamilnadu to the halcyon Sangam period of milk and honey has been dashed.

In the US we are presented with perhaps the murkiest of language policies---one that is (or at least used to be characterized as) superficially tolerant of linguistic diversity, and that does not explicitly enshrine English or any other language as primus inter pares. Yet attempts to stretch this `tolerance' policy are met with increasing intolerance, and nowhere more vehemently than among the vast majority of Anglo-Americans who may themselves be the products of the powerful but covert assimilationism inherent in American policy. Attempts to treat language rights as a civil rights issue, or as a freedom of speech issue, or any of the other rights protected explicitly in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been consistently rebuffed. Simultaneously, the courts have not allowed laws to be passed that single out any particular group, whether it be religious, linguistic, or ethnic, for exclusionary or punitive actions. US language policy remains in limbo, therefore---the courts deny it explicitness, but the people (both the monolingualists and the multilingualists) demand explicit guarantees. It has evolved from its original laissez-faire tolerance; the arrival of millions of German-speaking, Spanish-speaking and other language groups has tested it and led to inflexibility in certain areas (e.g. citizenship), but several factors inhibit radical change at the federal level.

One is that education and most of the other areas where linguistic rights are demanded remain non-federal rights; states and other jurisdictions are therefore free to pass legislation of various sorts, as long as it does not single out specific groups, and deny them their constitutional rights. The other is that language rights are not among those guaranteed explicitly in the original constitution, because no linguistic group came to America for linguistic freedom. It was not one of the crucial issues leading to the American revolution, and to a strict constructionist, is not one of the rallying points of our revolution.

A third factor may be the eternal one---that language shift can take place with very little personal disruption, if conditions are right. Children will learn the language of their environment, and most Americans do after two generations learn English. The primordialists who demand the protection of their language, who see its loss as personally and culturally devastating do not represent the majority view in any US immigrant group. They may speak the loudest, or the most eloquently, and may appear to be advocating demands that speak for everyone in their group, but do nothing but enrage the anglocentrists; but their children hedge their bets and learn English. The English-Only and similar movements are therefore beating a dead horse. There is no danger that any group will not learn English, so the politics of anglocentricity must be seen as an attack on something else---race, power, class, or demographics.

Postscript: This book, published in hardback in 1996, is available since 1998 in paper. It is the required text for a course Language Policy taught regularly at the University of Pennsylvania as LING 540. For more about social scientists' aversion to the idea of culture, click here. [Note: boldfacing, red font, and italics are mine (hs)]

Harold Schiffman
Fri Jan 26 12:38:57 EST 1996