The Bilingual Blur

Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism

by Kenji Hakuta
Basic Books, 268 pp., $18.95


Today there are perhaps four thousand spoken languages, about thirty times as many languages as there are countries in the world. Over half the world’s population is at least to some extent bilingual. These facts help to insure that bilingualism remains—as it has long been—an intellectually provocative and a socially charged issue. Why do human beings have so many mutually incomprehensible tongues? Should citizens be allowed to maintain their native language in an alien culture? Both questions have always been controversial. Thus, even before the United States came into existence, Benjamin Franklin complained about the prevalence of German in the province of Pennsylvania:

Few of their children in the country know English. They import many books from Germany…the signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages and in some places only German…. I suppose in a few years [interpreters] will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our legislators what the other half say. In short, unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies…they will so soon outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, will, in my opinion, be not able to preserve our language and even our government will become precarious.1

Similar alarm has been expressed by many national officials including Chief Justice Marshall, the two presidents Adams, and the two Roosevelts. Most recently, Secretary of Education William Bennett called bilingual education a “failed path”; sharply criticizing the practice of providing non-English-speaking students with schoolwork in their native tongue, he urged local school systems to experiment with various methods that would help students master English as quickly as possible.

The same intellectual and social themes have recurred across the centuries. A rationalist strain, dating back to René Descartes and strongly expressed in the contemporary linguistic analyses of Noam Chomsky, has argued for the existence of universal grammar, while minimizing “surface” differences among languages. Against this “unitarian” perspective Giambattista Vico in the early eighteenth century, Johann Gottfried von Herder a century later, and Benjamin Lee Whorf in our own time celebrated the multiplicity of languages. In their romantically tinged accounts, each language has its own peculiar “genius” which strongly colors the thoughts and sentiments of its users.

As for the debate within the United States, for every spokesman who urged that immigrants absorb the American language and the dominant national culture, there have been others, usually (but not always) drawn from the immigrant population, who have argued for maintaining one’s foreign heritage and its distinctive linguistic and cultural values. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson declined an invitation to call for “national uniformity in Language.”2

In recent years, scholars have undertaken several lines of study in an effort to resolve controversial aspects of bilingualism. Biological and cognitive scientists have been investigating the nature of languages, the ways they are represented in the human brain, and the connections between linguistic and thought patterns. When considering the bilingual mind, such investigators have asked, In what ways are…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.