Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Newt Gingrich's Crusade Against Linguistic Diversity

Newt Gingrich has said many times that he favors making English the official language, but I've never been all that clear on why he feels this is so important. The issue came up again during Monday's debate, and Newt managed to clear up precisely nothing, but at least he threw out some numbers:
The challenge of the United States is simple. There are 86 languages in Miami Dade College, 86. There are over 200 languages spoken in Chicago. Now, how do you unify the country? What is the common bond that enables people to be both citizens and to rise commercially and have a better life and a greater opportunity?
A school spokesman confirmed to Politifact that there are indeed 86 languages spoken at Miami Dade College. A similar number (85) appears at the top of this PDF the school put together to show off how many international students it has. So Gingrich is right, but his point is…what, exactly? This is a college that's proud of the international diversity of its student body, putting it on par with every single other educational institution in the developed world. (Even Liberty Freakin' University, which is about to start construction on the Jerry Freakin' Falwell Library, brags of enrolling "over 900 international students from over 80 foreign countries.") Besides, most of those foreign students won't be allowed to stay here after they get their degrees anyway, which is a problem Newt actually recognizes and says he wants to fix.[1]

His other claim—that over 200 languages are spoken in Chicago—is just as baffling, and it's something he's been saying for a while, if this 1997 column by the always delightful Pat Buchanan is any indication:
With 30 million immigrants since 1965, almost all now coming from Asia, Africa and Latin America, our European ethnic core — 90 percent in 1965 — is shrinking fast — to the delight of our president, who looks to the day soon when we are a nation of “minorities.” We no longer worship the same God, share the same ideas of morality, admire the same heroes or celebrate the same holidays.

“Do you realize that there are 200 languages spoken in the Chicago school system? That’s an asset, not a liability,” Newt Gingrich recently burbled to Joe Klein. Oh. I thought the scattering of the peoples at the Tower of Babel, when the Lord confused their languages, was a punishment, not a blessing.
I don't know what's more fascinating—that Newt has been citing the same dubious statistic for at least 15 years now, or that apparently at some point between then and now he reversed his position on whether linguistic diversity is a good thing or a bad thing.[2] Maybe he read Buchanan's column and had a change of heart.

Either way, it's unclear just what in the hell he's talking about, since I can't find a source for the claim or an instance where he's been asked to elaborate. The U.S. Census Bureau's latest data on language use shows that there are primary speakers of 137 different languages in the entire state of Illinois.[3] That's a little south of 200, but it's still a big number, I guess. Although it should be noted that 27 of those languages have no reported speakers in the state who cannot also speak English "very well", and another 64 have at least one, but fewer than a thousand such speakers (including 30 languages with fewer than a hundred). So that leaves only 46 languages with even moderately sizable non-English-speaking populations, which would probably still sound like a lot if we weren't comparing it to the insane exaggerations Newt's been throwing around.

Speaking of which, back to the debate, where moments later Gingrich shared with us his nightmarish vision of an America that sits on the precipice of succombing fully to the ravages of polylingualism:
But as a country to unify ourselves in a future in which there may well be 300 or 400 languages spoken in the United States, I think it is essential to have a central language that we expect people to learn and to be able to communicate with each other in.
I don't know if this is intentionally manipulative or just ignorant (though in Newt's case I'm inclined to assume the former), but it has to be one or the other. For one thing, according to Ethnologue, the number of languages spoken in the U.S. is probably in the 300-400 range right now.[4] And Newt's predicting divisiveness and incomprehensibility? I haven't seen it. Unless we're counting the Republican debates. [Rimshot]

Moreover, the number of languages in the world, much like the number of extant animal species or profitable daily newspapers, is declining at an unprecedented rate. Many of the languages spoken in the U.S., as you might expect, were around long before the Europeans arrived, and it seems a little unfair to lump Native Americans in with immigrants when you're spreading misinformation about people coming here and not learning the local tongue, but, regardless, all but a handful of their languages are pretty close to extinction—so that's a hundred or so things Newt won't have to worry about much longer. Indigenous languages brought over by immigrants from Africa and Asia make up another big chunk of the 300-400, and most of them are in similarly dire straits. And even languages with stable populations elsewhere in the world, often retained initially by entire communities of newly-arriving immgrants, tend to disappear within a few generations.

What, then, is Newt so worried about? Who can ever say for sure, but I think the big numbers are nothing but misdirection. There's only one language that stands even a remote chance of reaching the same level of importance in America as English, y todo el mundo sabe exactamente cual es. But Newt isn't willing to aim his rhetoric directly at Spanish speakers—at least in part because, despite all implications to the contrary, many of them speak English too—so he demonizes the whole universe of human language instead.

If the problem is that a lot of people are speaking Spanish, the complainer is accused (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) of being xenophobic, and possibly racist. But if the problem is reframed—if it's that people are speaking, like, hundreds if not thousands of different languages and making everything confusing as all hell, then that almost sounds like a sensible thing to complain about. Assuming there's anyone left who can understand you.

1. From
We have the best universities in the world, but many foreigners who come to study are turned away and sent back home as soon as they get their degree. It is foolish to educate someone well enough for them to start the next job-creating startup, only to force them to leave America and start their business overseas. We want the jobs here and that means we want the job creators here.
2. Actually, it seems more likely that Buchanan was just being haphazard with context. I'm willing to bet Gingrich's next sentence started with "but", and proceeded to make it abundantly clear that his previous sentence was merely a pre-emptive strike against charges of cultural insensitivity.
3. More or less. I counted only languages that are specifically identified, but there are also a few thousand people lumped into catch-all categories like India n.e.c. (not elsewhere classified), Pakistan n.e.c., American Indian, African, and Uncodable, so the count may be a little higher. On the other hand, languages like Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian—which exemplify the adage that a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy—are listed separately despite being mutually intelligible.
4. This includes 176 languages known to be the primary language of at least one living, U.S.-born person, and about 190 languages classified as non-indigenous ("spoken by relatively recently arrived or transient populations which do not have a well-established, multi-generational community in the country"). Unsurprisingly, the line between the two categories is rather hazy.


  1. You got this one right too. There are dozens of statements from the debates and the campaigns that just boggle the mind if you take a second to think about them. It seems like they just hope we don't think, and instead buy into the emotional appeal - which is likely the point.

    You should do a little piece on the false choices that are presented (on both sides of the aisle actually) that do nothing to actually address an issue, but only get people more polarizes. I heard one this morning about letting banks foreclose on mortgages that are seriously delinquent (and the owners can't afford them) vs. "throwing the families out on the street". Of course no one would ever willfully throw someone out on the street, or force them to live in a homeless shelter. But isn't the alternative something more like - have them get an apartment or buy a cheaper house to live in?

  2. At least English is the official language of the Moon.

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