Latinos Advocate Tolerance for All Languages

According to the Bureau of the Census estimates, the Latino population reached 44.3 million in 2006, which represented 15 percent of the nation’s total population. Many whites have responded to this population growth with alarm. They see the specter of a foreign Latin American surge as a menace to ‘American values’ and the U.S. “core culture.”

Language lies within that core, and the dramatic growth of the Latino population is viewed by many members of the ruling racial group as a direct threat to the survivability of English, what is often termed by them “the official language of the country.”

The influential Harvard professor Samuel Huntington has recently articulated a deeply xenophobic and naïve assessment of Latinos’ use of Spanish at home and in public places. This situation, in his view, portends aggressive bilingualism and the growth of two distinct segments of U.S. society unable to communicate with each other. Huntington and other monoglots have neglected a basic step, namely, asking ordinary Latinos about their views on the issue. If Latinos are embarking on a Spanish predominance campaign, this should be reflected on their views on language.

Joe Feagin and I collected data from 72 in-depth interviews of mostly middle-class Latinos carried out in 2003-2005 in numerous states with substantial Latino populations (Ethnic and Racial Studies, July, 2007). Our interviewees did not voice any derision toward English. In point of fact, not one of them advocated that Spanish should replace English as the standard language of the U.S.

They asserted, however, that language diversity should be encouraged. As one of them put it:

“The more languages you know, the more culture you have.”

Cultural groups struggle to keep their language because it is fundamental to social life and expresses the understandings of its associated culture in overt and subtle ways. Many Latinos prefer to use Spanish because it affords them a richer form of communication. Analysts like Huntington accuse Latinos of being a threat to the “American way of life,” which for them means Anglo-Saxon ways of doing things. On closer examination, this is a peculiar accusation because many Latinos are accenting the virtues of language diversity and pluralism, values that reflect one of the pillars of the dominant U.S. ideology : “melting pot” imagery.

~ José A. Cobas


  1. “The more languages you know, the more culture you have.”

    I believe this is true. I’d make a few small adjustments.

    The more languages and dialects you know, the more cultural competence you have.

    I believe cultural competence should be viewed as both a skill and as an intellectual virtue in culturally and linguistically pluralistic societies. I don’t believe most people can be culturally competent in culturally and linguistically pluralistic societies if they are not also diglots or polyglots. And, I believe that most of us, depending on our intellectual abilities and the linguistic attributes of our social networks, will have ethical obligations to learn the languages or dialects that are used by most of the people with whom we interact regularly.

    Almost all Americans should be diglots (we all should speak, read, and write English and Spanish). And almost all culturally competent Americans living in our largest and most culturally diverse cities would probably need to be polyglots before they could consider themselves culturally competent.

    It is difficult for me to imagine how people could argue persuasively that they understand multiple cultures thoroughly if they are not rudimentarily proficient at using the languages or dialects of those cultures. And it is difficult for me to imagine how people could argue persuasively that they possess high levels of practical wisdom if they do not thoroughly understand the major cultures* promulgated by the members of their society.

    *Major cultures = the cultures promulgated by more than 10% of the members of a culturally pluralistic society.

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