Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 2 : 3 May 2002

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.

USA Map. courtesy:


Language movements in the United States are somewhat different in their scope and focus from the language movements we notice in India. These movements focus on the freedom of expression, not merely as an attempt to maintain the ethnic identity of the people groups. These movements tend to jell together representing the struggle of the conscious minority groups for their rights. They are often elevated to a common ground, rather than being treated as individual issues affecting this or that particular minority group. Some of the more prominent issues include the following: a struggle for the recognition of the sign language as a legitimate means of expression, use of an African American dialect as the mother tongue medium in the elementary school stage, providing for mother tongue education, if necessary through a model of bilingual eduaction, to the Latin American labor in the fields of California, celebrating the diversity of cultures in the schools and providing for special counselors adept in some of these minority languages, printing and publishing the government service forms in the minority languages, etc. An interesting aspect is that almost all the groups recognize the importance and the pre-eminent place that should be accorded to English as the common language. These movements may also focus on re-inventing their languages and cultures, especially the cultures represented by the minority groups. Often the economically less prosperous minority groups and individuals join the struggle, whereas the economically prosperous groups tend to avoid participation in these "struggles." One should also put on record the fact that the communities tend to recognize these struggles to a very great extent and try to provide some facilities to meet the perceived needs of the minority groups. However, dissatisfaction is always there, and the politically active, civil rights groups often help keep the struggle alive.


I would like to present some of the positions taken by the leading professional body, the Linguistic Society of America, on some of the "burning" issues of the day. It is likely that the decisions and recommendations arrived at by this venerable professional body may not be in tune with the majority opinion in the United States. However, it is important for us to understand the current thinking on certain issues dealt with in other nations that bear some semblance to what the Indian societies in India face. One of the strengths of Indian scholarship has been its openness to study, understand and critically evaluate the developments around the world. In that spirit, I present some of the issues discussed by the Linguistic Society of America. In the next issue we will try to bring out some "political" documents issued by the liberal American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the conservative groups on the issues touched here in this paper.


When Christopher Columbus reached some Caribbean islands on October 12, 1492 he thought that he had arrived in India. Within the present day United States, the Spanish established their first colony in the year 1598. This Spanish colony was then part of Mexico. The first permanent English colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The Pilgrims arrived in America in 1620 in the ship Mayflower. They formed the colony of Plymouth, in the state now called Massachusetts. England had thirteen colonies along the Atlantic coast and these formed the original United States of America when they declared independence from England in 1776.

Even before the arrival of Europeans, America had flourished as a continent of many languages. There were many Native American languages, divided into several independent language families, spoken in the United States. The early European immigration simply added the European languages to the mix of native languages already spoken in the continent. The westward move of the population, from the Atlantic coast in the east and northeast to the Pacific coast in the west and southwest, coincided with the tremendous socio-economic and industrial changes taking place in Europe and other parts of the world. The materially advanced European settlers began to have an upper hand over the materially less advanced Native American groups in the Americas.

Within North America, English was accepted by the majority of European immigrants as the important common language. It was generally a matter of convenience for these European immigrants to adopt English in public, although many North European groups tended to retain their original European languages as their home language. There were certainly resentments, here and there, against the "domineering" position of the English language that was adopted more or less in all public transactions. The exchange of spouses across ethnic groups was slow in coming, but this also helped the acceptance of English as the common language. This consolidation of English in North America helped the acceptance and use of English in other parts of the world. In the international political arena, the British power was consolidated and along with this the decline in the importance of the other European colonial powers had its effect in the speedy acceptance of English as a sort of lingua franca.

This is a rather over-simplified picture. However such a description is not too far away from facts.


For nearly 175 years, the immigrants to the United States came mainly from Europe. But with the geographic and economic expansion, immigration from the other continents also increased. Since the 1960s immigrants came largely from Latin America and Asia. This has resulted in demands for an increased role of other languages in public and in governmental transactions. Also the political thinking and social behavior had dramatically changed since the 1960s. The liberal outlook, for want of a better term, of the American population since the 1960s has resulted in looking at the possibility that people may speak languages other than English and still be part of the "American Dream."

Unfortunately, everything must lead to some political action and politicking. While the vast majority of the people, both the recent immigrants and those settled in the USA for generations by now, desire that English be learned and used efficiently and effectively, since English is still a great passport to better employment, movements have sprung up in favor or against the "dominant" position of English, as surrogates to support or eliminate some other values. A good number of the states within the United States have now passed legislation making English as the official language, while providing for the use of other languages in some limited domains. Other states are being pressured by the so-called English Only groups to pass such legislation. The constitution of the United States has nothing to say about the official language or languages of the country. By tradition, however, English is the official language. On the other hand, groups that demand recognition of "language rights" argue in favor of introducing instruction through mother tongue at the early stages of elementary education. Others demand some bilingual models of education to cater to the non-English speaking groups of people. Some among the African American groups speak in favor of introducing the African American dialect (of English) as the medium of instruction in the early stages, claiming that such usage will facilitate better expression and the retention of their ethnic identity. It looks as if even as the whole world looks towards America, America is looking towards the world at large, receiving within its boundaries the models of language conflict from without!


But let not the students of linguistics and laymen in India assume that the situation is out of hand in the United States! Or violent street demonstrations are taking place, with people self-immolating themselves in order to achieve their linguistic goals! Or sacrificing the public property as burnt offerings at the altar of their Divine Mother Language! English is well entrenched in the United States, it is gaining ground all over the world, and even the people who demand recognition for their languages do recognize the importance of English for their life in the USA and around the world.

Debates, however, continue. I give below some important documents culled from different sources that throw some light on the issue, and the positions taken by certain agencies, primarily the Linguistic Society of America on these issues. It is doubtful whether all the linguists in the United States subscribe to the position of the Society. But it is good to know the mind of such academic bodies as revealed through their resolutions.


Resolution: English Only

Whereas several states have recently passed measures making English their "official state language," and
Whereas the "English-only" movement has begun to campaign for the passage of similar measures in other states and has declared its intention to attach an official language amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and
Whereas such measures have the effect of preventing the legislature and state agencies and officials from providing services or information in languages other than English,
Be it therefore resolved that the Society make known its opposition to such "English only" measures, on the grounds that they are based on misconceptions about the role of a common language in establishing political unity, and that they are inconsistent with basic American traditions of linguistic tolerance. As scholars with a professional interest in language, we affirm that:
The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional compulsion to learn the language.
American unity has never rested primarily on unity of language, but rather on common political and social ideals.
History shows that a common language cannot be imposed by force of law, and that attempts to do so usually create divisiveness and disunity. This has been the effect, for example, of the efforts of the English to impose the English language in Ireland, of Soviet efforts to impose the Russian language on non-Russian nationalities, and of Franco's efforts to impose Spanish on the Basques and Catalans.
It is to the economic and cultural advantage of the nation as a whole that its citizens should be proficient in more than one language, and to this end we should encourage both foreign language study for native English speakers, and programs that enable speakers with other linguistic backgrounds to maintain proficiency in those languages along with English.
Presented and approved at the LSA Business Meeting in New York City, December 1986. Submitted to and passed by membership in a mail ballot, March 1987.


Statement on Language Rights

The Linguistic Society of America was founded in 1924 to advance the scientific study of language. The Society's present membership of approximately 7000 persons and institutions includes a great proportion of the leading experts on language in the United States, as well as many from abroad. Many of the Society's members have experience with, or expertise in, bilingualism and multilingualism. Despite increasing interest in these topics, public debate is all too often based on misconceptions about language. In this Statement, the Society addresses some of these misconceptions and urges the protection of basic linguistic rights.
  1. The vast majority of the world's nations are at least bilingual, and most are multilingual, even if one ignores the impact of modern migrations. Countries in which all residents natively speak the same language are a small exception, certainly not the rule. Even nations like France, Germany and the United Kingdom have important linguistic minorities within their borders. Furthermore, where diverse linguistic communities exist in one country, they have generally managed to coexist peacefully. Finland, Singapore, and Switzerland are only three examples. Where linguistic discord does arise, as it has with various degrees of intensity in Belgium, Canada, and Sri Lanka, it is generally the result of majority attempts to disadvantage or suppress a minority linguistic community, or it reflects underlying racial or religious conflicts. Multilingualism by itself is rarely an important cause of civil discord.
  2. The territory that now constitutes the United States was home to hundreds of languages before the advent of European settlers. These indigenous languages belonged to several language families. Each native language is or was a fully developed system of communication with rich structures and expressive power. Many past and present members of the Society have devoted their professional lives to documenting and analyzing the native languages of the United States.
  3. Unfortunately, most of the indigenous languages of the United States are severely threatened. All too often their eradication was deliberate government policy. In other cases, these languages have suffered from biased or uninformed views that they are mere "dialects" with simple grammatical structures and limited vocabularies. The decline of America's indigenous languages has been closely linked to the loss of much of the culture of their speakers.
  4. Because of this history, the Society believes that the government and people of the United States have a special obligation to enable indigenous peoples to retain their languages and cultures. The Society strongly supports the federal recognition of this obligation, as expressed in the Native American Languages Act. The Society urges federal, state and local governments to continue to affirmatively implement the policies of the Act by enacting legislation, appropriating more adequate funding, and monitoring the progress made under the Act.
  5. The United States is also home to numerous immigrant languages other than English. The arrival of some of these languages, such as Dutch, French, German, and Spanish, predates the founding of our nation. Many others have arrived more recently. The substantial number of residents of the United States who speak languages other than English presents us with both challenges and opportunities.
  6. The challenges of multilingualism are well known: incorporating linguistic minorities into our economic life, teaching them English so they can participate more fully in our society, and properly educating their children. Unfortunately, in the process of incorporating immigrants and their offspring into American life, bilingualism is often wrongly regarded as a "handicap" or "language barrier." Of course, inability to speak English often functions as a barrier to economic advancement in the United States. But to be bilingual--to speak both English and another language--should be encouraged, not stigmatized. There is no convincing evidence that bilingualism by itself impedes cognitive or educational development. On the contrary, there is evidence that it may actually enhance certain types of intelligence.
  7. Multilingualism also presents our nation with many benefits and opportunities. For example, bilingual individuals can use their language skills to promote our business interests abroad. Their linguistic competence strengthens our foreign diplomatic missions and national defense. And they can better teach the rest of us to speak other languages.
  8. Moreover, people who speak a language in addition to English provide a role model for other Americans. Our national record on learning other languages is notoriously poor. A knowledge of foreign languages is necessary not just for immediate practical purposes, but also because it gives people the sense of international community that America requires if it is to compete successfully in a global economy.
  9. Furthermore, different languages allow different ways of expressing experiences, thoughts, and aesthetics. America's art and culture are greatly enriched by the presence of diverse languages among its citizens.
  10. To remedy our policies towards the languages of Native Americans and to encourage acquisition or retention of languages other than English by all Americans, the Linguistic Society of America urges our nation to protect and promote the linguistic rights of its people. At a minimum, all residents of the United States should be guaranteed the following linguistic rights:
    1. To be allowed to express themselves, publicly or privately, in the language of their choice.
    2. To maintain their native language and, should they so desire, to pass it on to their children.
    3. When their facility in English is inadequate, to be provided a qualified interpreter in any proceeding in which the government endeavors to deprive them of life, liberty or property. Moreover, where there is a substantial linguistic minority in a community, interpretation ought to be provided by courts and other state agencies in any matter that significantly affects the public.
    4. To have their children educated in a manner that affirmatively acknowledges their native language abilities as well as ensures their acquisition of English. Children can learn only when they understand their teachers. As a consequence, some use of children's native language in the classroom is often desirable if they are to be educated successfully.
    5. To conduct business in the language of their choice.
    6. To use their preferred language for private conversations in the workplace.
    7. To have the opportunity to learn to speak, read and write English.
  11. Notwithstanding the multilingual history of the United States, the role of English as our common language has never seriously been questioned. Research has shown that newcomers to America continue to learn English at rates comparable to previous generations of immigrants. All levels of government should adequately fund programs to teach English to any resident who desires to learn it. Nonetheless, promoting our common language need not, and should not, come at the cost of violating the rights of linguistic minorities.
Prepared by the Committee on Social and Political Concerns
Approved by the Executive Committee of the LSA
Ratified by the membership of the LSA
June 1996


LSA Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage

The following guidelines were approved by the Executive Committee as suggestions for the preparation of written and oral presentations in linguistics (5/95).
Sexist practices are those that contribute to demeaning or ignoring women (or men) or to stereotyping either sex; sexism is often not a matter of intention but of effect. These guidelines reflect a growing body of research which indicates that many people find sexist language offensive. Although linguists (like all scholars) need to guard against sexist linguistic and scholarly practices in their main texts and accompanying citations and acknowledgments, sexism in the linguistics literature is most often obvious in constructed example sentences. Sometimes this is the result of an effort to inject humor in otherwise dry prose, sometimes it is due to the use of traditional examples, and sometimes it is simply due to inattention. For fuller discussion of the perception and effects of sexist language and a much more comprehensive set of guidelines that offers help with alternatives, see Francine Wattman Frank & Paula A. Treichler, Language, Gender, and professional Writing (New York: Modern Language Association, 1989). See also Barrie Thorne, Cheris Kramarae & Nancy Henley, Language, Gender and Society (Cambridge, MA: Newbury House, 1983) and Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker & Nelly Furman,Women and Language in Literature in Society (New York: Praeger, 1980).
  1. Whenever possible, use plurals (people, they) and other appropriate alternatives, rather than only masculine pronouns and "pseudo-generics" such as man, unless referring specifically to males.
  2. In glossing forms from another language, it is possible to use forms such as 3sg (third person singular) in place of pronouns, thus avoiding the introduction of gender-specificity or asymmetry when it is absent in the original. For example, sentences referring to an individual whose sex is not identified are incorrectly translated into English sentences with the pronoun he, which unambiguously conveys maleness in reference to specific individuals. Some writers have found the use of he or she, s/he and he/she/it to be helpful in this regard. Others find it useful to alternate the use of masculine and feminine pronouns where appropriate.
  3. Avoid generic statements which inaccurately refer only to one sex (e.g., "Speakers use language for many purposes--to argue with their wives..." or "Americans use lots of obscenities but not around women").
  4. Whenever possible, use terms that avoid sexual stereotyping. Such terms as server, professor, and nurse can be effectively used as gender neutral; marked terms like waitress, lady professor, and male nurse cannot.
  5. Use parallel forms of reference for women and men; e.g. do not cite a male scholar by surname only and a female scholar by first name or initial plus surname.
  6. In constructing example sentences, avoid gender-stereotyped characterizations. Avoid peopling your examples exclusively with one sex, or consistently putting reference to males before reference to females. (Historically, grammar books stipulated that references to males should precede references to females - see Ann Bodine, "Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar" Language in Society 4: 129-46, 1975.) The use of sex-ambiguous names such as Chris, Dana, Kim, Lee, and Pat will sometimes help avoid stereotyping either males or females.


Resolution: Sign Languages

The Linguistic Society of America affirms that sign languages used by deaf communities are full-fledged languages with all the structural characteristics and range of expression of spoken languages. They have rule-governed systems of articulation, word formation, sentence structure, and meaning, which have been the subject of modern scholarly study since the pioneering work of William Stokoe (1919-2000) over forty years ago.
These languages are not merely a set of informal gestures, nor are they a signed version of any particular spoken language. American Sign Language, the language of deaf communities in the United States and most of Canada, goes back almost two hundred years and is historically and structurally unrelated to spoken English. It is also the vehicle of a distinguished deaf culture and has a tradition of visual literature.
The LSA affirms for signed languages such as ASL all the rights and privileges attendant to any spoken languages, including the right to satisfy a student's academic foreign language requirement, just as Spanish, Chinese, Navajo, or any other spoken language can. Because communication through language is a basic human need and right, the LSA supports laws that ensure interpreters for deaf people in their interactions with hearing people who do not sign. We also encourage American educational institutions at all levels to create opportunities for learning ASL so that those in regular contact with members of the deaf community can study and learn ASL, and to foster the study of ASL by supporting research on it and by developing educational degree programs for teachers of ASL, for interpreters of ASL, and for those interested in ASL Studies.
Drafted by the 2001 LSA Annual Meeting Resolutions Committee. Endorsed by members attending the 2001 Annual Business Meeting, 5 January 2001, Grand Hyatt Hotel, Washington, DC. Passed by mail-in ballot of LSA membership, 1 July 2001.



Whereas there has been a great deal of discussion in the media and among the American public about the l8 December l996 decision of the Oakland School Board to recognize the language variety spoken by many African American students and to take it into account in teaching Standard English, the Linguistic Society of America, as a society of scholars engaged in the scientific study of language, hereby resolves to make it known that:
  1. The variety known as "Ebonics," "African American Vernacular English" (AAVE), and "Vernacular Black English" and by other names is systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties. In fact, all human linguistic systems--spoken, signed, and written -- are fundamentally regular. The systematic and expressive nature of the grammar and pronunciation patterns of the African American vernacular has been established by numerous scientific studies over the past thirty years. Characterizations of Ebonics as "slang," "mutant," " lazy," "defective," "ungrammatical," or "broken English" are incorrect and demeaning.
  2. The distinction between "languages" and "dialects" is usually made more on social and political grounds than on purely linguistic ones. For example, different varieties of Chinese are popularly regarded as "dialects," though their speakers cannot understand each other, but speakers of Swedish and Norwegian, which are regarded as separate "languages," generally understand each other. What is important from a linguistic and educational point of view is not whether AAVE is called a "language" or a "dialect" but rather that its systematicity be recognized.
  3. As affirmed in the LSA Statement of Language Rights (June l996), there are individual and group benefits to maintaining vernacular speech varieties and there are scientific and human advantages to linguistic diversity. For those living in the United States there are also benefits in acquiring Standard English and resources should be made available to all who aspire to mastery of Standard English. The Oakland School Board's commitment to helping students master Standard English is commendable.
  4. There is evidence from Sweden, the US, and other countries that speakers of other varieties can be aided in their learning of the standard variety by pedagogical approaches which recognize the legitimacy of the other varieties of a language. From this perspective, the Oakland School Board's decision to recognize the vernacular of African American students in teaching them Standard English is linguistically and pedagogically sound.
Chicago, Illinois
January l997


The statements issued by the Linguistic Society of America reflect the concerns of the community of linguists regarding language planning and language policies in the United States. As I stated already, the views of the professional body need not be necessarily the views of the people at large. From its focus on the structural description of languages, the linguistic science moved forward to provide explanation for language as a cognitive design. This moving forward has been a mixed blessing. Now, although the professional body is rather very careful in spelling out the benefits of English, its position on language policy and language planning would be subject to more social scrutiny and criticism, because, as the last resolution cited above says, such decisions (regarding the status of language and dialect, etc.) "are made more on social and political grounds than on purely linguistic ones."

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M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Bethany College of Missions
Bloomington, MN 55438, USA