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date: 13 July 2020

Language Policy, Ideology, and Attitudes in English-Dominant Countries

Abstract and Keywords

Many subfields within sociolinguistics have been influenced by developments in linguistics and social theory over the past half century. This has certainly been the case in the field of language policy and planning (LPP), which has incorporated new ways of thinking about language, society, and cognition, as evidenced by the published research in journals and books. This chapter considers the ways in which views on the nature of language, language ideologies, and language and identity have fundamentally altered the research agendas and foci in the field of LPP over the past several decades. It examines how these newer ways of understanding language in society have been applied to English-speaking countries, particularly with reference to North America.

Keywords: language nature, language ideologies, language and identity, LPP, North America

Many subfields within sociolinguistics have been influenced by developments in linguistics and social theory over the past half century. This has certainly been the case in the field of language policy and planning (LPP), which has incorporated new ways of thinking about language, society, and cognition, as evidenced by the published research in journals and books. In the earliest stage of LPP as a scholarly field, sociolinguists used their skills in descriptive linguistics for language planning activities in newly independent countries in Africa and Asia, usually with the goal of “standardizing” and elaborating local languages within a paradigm of stable diglossia with a colonial European language, such as English, French, Portuguese, Dutch, or Italian. The motivation underlying much of this work reflected long-held, often implicit, views that modernization required a common national language to improve efficiency, develop nationalistic attitudes, and promote economic development. The approach taken by scholars (early practitioners of what came to be known as LPP) was claimed to be non-political, technical in nature, interested in solving “problems,” and pragmatic, (p. 526) that is, results oriented. In general, the Western-influenced approaches to LPP in the developing world did not achieve the hoped for results, both in terms of language modernization or socioeconomic development. In fact, “newly independent states found themselves in some ways more dependent on their former colonial masters than they had been during the colonial era” (Ricento 2000: 200). Critical and postmodern theories began to influence the ways in which scholars analyzed the relations between language policies and social inequalities. Changing views about the nature of language, along with the ubiquity and “naturalness” of bi- and multilingualism documented in developing nations (and increasingly in “developed” nations), have led to paradigmatic changes in the field of language policy and planning (Ricento 2006). In this chapter, I consider the ways in which views on the nature of language, language ideologies, and language and identity have fundamentally altered the research agendas and foci in the field of LPP over the past several decades. Following this brief assessment, I will consider how these newer ways of understanding language in society have been applied to English-speaking countries, particularly with reference to North America.


Although in much of the published research in LPP, agreement on what “language” means or refers to is assumed, such assumptions need to be critically examined. Chomsky’s (1969) autonomous linguistics represents one end of a continuum whereby language was conceived as a highly articulated and innate faculty of the brain that needed only the input of human language to “grow” into the particular named “language” the child was exposed to from birth, for example, English, French, Japanese, and so on. Chomsky analogized the growth of language to the growth of organs or limbs in that in both cases, the “program” for “growth” into the adult form is specific, predictable, and with very particular outcomes. His methodology stipulated a homogeneous speech community in which the ideal hearer/speaker would acquire his or her language x. While Chomsky’s theory of language and language acquisition was groundbreaking, revolutionizing the field of linguistics, it also tended to reify monolingualism and monoculturalism (even if this was an unintended consequence of the Chomskyean model) as intrinsic and normal characteristics of humans and human society. The construct of a homogeneous speech community ignored the fact that speech communities are more typically heterogeneous (culturally) and heteroglossic (linguistically), and growing up with more than one language is far from uncommon. The theory of language as an autonomous system and the “normal” speaker as possessing intact and separate “languages” was consonant with idea of the nation-state as a bounded entity unified in (p. 527) large measure by the sharing of a common “national” language. The fact that transformational grammar claimed to be a “descriptive” science, that is, based on how people actually use language, has been shown to be inaccurate, as the grammatical intuitions of generative linguists tended to be based on the standard, prescriptive variety that they had acquired and used (Taylor 1997).

At the other end of the continuum of theories about language is the claim that named languages are constructs and that the “science” of linguistics, therefore, is based on a myth (Harris 1990: 45). Makoni and Pennycook (2007) argue that in order to deal with the damaging legacy of colonialism in Africa and elsewhere, we must “disinvent” language. They cite the work of Harris (1981) who has argued that “linguistics…has profoundly misconstrued language through its myths about autonomy, systematicity and the rule-bound nature of language, privileging supposedly expert scientific linguistic knowledge over everyday understandings of language” (in Makoni and Pennycook 2007: 18–19). Hopper (1998: 157–8) argues “there is no natural fixed structure to language. Rather, speakers borrow heavily from their previous experiences of communication in similar circumstances, on similar topics, and with similar interlocutors. Systematicity, in this view, is an illusion produced by the partial settling or sedimentation of frequently used forms into temporary subsystems.” Empirical research on the language repertoires of individuals living in heteroglossic communities, such as New York City (e.g., Zentella 1997), has shown that complex patterns of language mixing and codeswitching are not unusual, and do not comport with commonsense (or some theoretical) views about “normal” linguistic competence. In fact, such “ways of doing language,” rather than aberrations from the “norm,” are in fact widely attested throughout the world. Makoni and Pennycook (2007: 21) go so far as to argue that “all languages are creoles, and that the slave and colonial history of creoles should serve as a model on which other languages are assessed. In other words, it is what is seen as marginal or exceptional that should be used to frame our understandings of language.”

Once we begin to think about language, and especially “standard” languages, as constructs “posited as separate entities at a particular moment in European philosophical and political thought” (Makoni and Pennycook 2007: 21), it becomes much easier to understand how LPP evolved as a normative and descriptive activity of “counting,” “codifying,” and “standardizing” languages as “things,” possessed by “native speakers” who had “mother tongues” and who might speak “other (named) languages.” Historical linguistic research demonstrated the relationships among Indo-European languages; however, it wasn”t until the development of nation-states in the eighteenth century that the quasi-mythological notion that a common, named language is a necessary, if not sufficient, requirement for national identity gained traction, and this has continued to influence how people think and talk about language/s. The naming and invention of what were, in fact, heteroglossic (and usually locally unnamed) varieties of spoken language in colonized territories in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Australasia and the ascription of shared cultural origins (p. 528) among disparate ethnolinguistic areas in what today is called Europe, was one of the signal legacies of the modernist project of the European empires (see Willinsky 1998).


Ideology is defined by van Dijk (1998: 8) as “the shared framework(s) of social beliefs that organize and coordinate the social interpretations and practices of groups and their members.” All groups and societies have ideologies; as Silverstein (1992: 315) notes: “[T]here is no possible absolutely pre-ideological, i.e., zero-order, social semiotic.” When frameworks of social beliefs are widely shared in societies, or by groups in society, they tend to be viewed as natural, normal, and commonsense, while alternative frameworks that run counter to widely shared beliefs tend to be viewed as deviant, abnormal, and irrational. For example, many readers of this chapter will find the assertion that named languages (as opposed to language) are constructs and that “there is no natural fixed structure to language” to be contrary to their “commonsense” beliefs about language, beliefs that are based on their socialization into particular speech communities and, especially, as a result of many years of formal schooling in which they learned about the “rules” of language, “parts of speech,” “good grammar,” and so on. In fact, for many people born and raised in monolingual homes and educated in monolingual schools, it is not at all surprising that they would consider multilingual competence, language mixing and codeswitching, hybridity, and bidialectalism as “different,” even “abnormal,” perhaps “uneducated,” and possibly incompatible with modernity and upward socioeconomic mobility. As we will see, there is evidence that such views, in fact, are widespread in the United States and Canada, and to varying degrees in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, and that they inform attitudes and policies about language-in-education, the role of minority languages in the public sphere, and even linguistic requisites for citizenship and social acceptance.

English Monolingualism and Standard Language Ideology

Although English is not designated as the official language of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Australia (it is an official language in Canada (p. 529) and New Zealand), the ideology of English monolingualism makes such a designation superfluous. As Wiley and Lukes (1996: 519) note: “The ideology of monolingualism sees language diversity as largely a consequence of immigration. In other words, language diversity is viewed as imported.” A related concept is what Silverstein (1996) refers to as the “monoglot” ideology, which rests on the belief “that a society is in effect monolingual…coupled with a denial of practices that point toward factual multilingualism and linguistic diversity” (cited in Blommaert 2006: 243–44). Blommaert (2006: 244–45) goes on to describe the effects of the monoglot ideology: (1) it informs practical language regimes in education and other crucial spheres of public life; (2) it produces and regulates identities; and (3) it has had a tremendous impact on scholarship. If we focus on the situation in the United States, historical research demonstrates that although many languages were spoken in North America prior to the establishment of the United States, the number increasing over time as a result of immigration, the association of English with national (American) identity became solidified during and after the United States’ involvement in the war in Europe beginning in 1914 (Ricento 2003; Wiley 1998). This period witnessed the first Americanization movement, the goal of which was to “Americanize” the large number of European immigrants who arrived in the period between 1880 and 1910 (Ricento 2003). A principal means of achieving Americanization was through massive education programs that sought to teach American values, ways of thinking, ways of living, and especially the national language, English. Hyphenated Americans (e.g., Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, German-Americans) were not considered 100 percent or “true” Americans; the teaching, learning, and even use of non-English immigrant languages was considered by many to be un-American and a sign of resistance to social integration. One hundred years later, it can be argued that matters have not changed significantly. To become American one had to think (in English) like an American, as demonstrated in these excerpts from the Bulletin Americanization of January 1, 1919:

All Americans must be taught to read and write and think in one language. This is a primary condition to that growth which all nations expect of us and which we demand of ourselves.

Do you know what a 100 percent American means? Many of us have the wrong idea in thinking that he is a person born or naturalized in our country. No, that is not enough. He is a person who believes in American ideas and ideals. You of foreign birth need not forget the teachings of your old home. Just translate them into the thoughts of America.

The effects of the ideology of English monolingualism on attitudes toward “other” languages is manifested in many ways. For example, even though Spanish pre-dates the arrival of English on the North American continent, it has typically been taught as a “foreign” language in schools and in recent decades efforts (many successful) have been made to outlaw or restrict bilingual English/Spanish education, restrict or rescind bilingual voting ballots, and to (p. 530) reduce or eliminate bilingual services in the public sector. This is occurring at the same time that Spanish is widely used in daily life in cities such as Miami and in many towns in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California, especially near the Mexican border. Perhaps most telling has been the concerted effort over the past 30 years to declare English the official language of the United States (Ricento 1998a), largely in reaction to increased immigration from Latin America that has positioned Spanish as the most widely spoken language in the United States after English.

Another ideology described by Wiley and Lukes (1996) is the standard language ideology, which elevates a particular variety of a named language spoken by the dominant social group to a (H)igh status while diminishing other varieties to a (L)ow status. This variety, based on prescriptive norms of the written language, is believed to be more “correct,” “logical” and “efficient” in communicative terms than other varieties, many of which are identified as being “nonstandard,” “illegitimate,” “ignorant,” or just plain “bad.” The standard language is, in effect, “the language” (English, French, Japanese, etc.) idealized in dictionaries and grammar books (which never reflect actual usage in any systematic way), which follows from the ideology of what a language is, or ought to be (described earlier). The named/standard language is something imposed through a process whereby the social and political elite in a state or territory codify their variety of speech in written form, and make it the “standard” against which all other ways of speaking and writing are judged. Over time, it is learned through schooling and becomes the de facto norm. Persons speaking other stigmatized (“nonstandard”) varieties tend to be viewed as having deficiencies in intelligence, morality, and/or character and are often less successful in achieving upward social mobility, which generally requires proficiency in the standard “national” language. This has certainly been the case in the English-dominant countries in which speakers of nonstandard varieties of English, such as African American English, Chicano English, Maori-influenced English, Aboriginal and Native American varieties of English, and certainly the millions of speakers of regional and socioeconomically indexed varieties of English in the United Kingdom, such as Cornish, Yorkshire, Cockney, and so on, have faced discrimination because of the language variety they grew up with. Other factors and ideologies certainly have played a role in limiting opportunities of speakers of nonstandard varieties, including discrimination based on perceived or ascribed categories of race, ethnicity, and national origin, but findings in sociolinguistic research using Likert, Matched Guise, and the Semantic Differential techniques, along with ethnographic studies in multilingual communities, clearly demonstrate that negative judgments are often linked to perceptions of “foreign” accents and “nonstandard” language forms, irrespective of a person”s physical appearance (Preston 2009; Baker 2006).

(p. 531) “Language-as-Resource”

Ideologies about language(s) are part of academic theorizing no less than they are attributes of the “objects,” that is, texts, discourses, and societies studied by academics. As such, academic constructs will not be immune from the ideological formations present in their societies. Ruiz (1984) posits three approaches to language planning that can be found in the literature of language planning: “language-as-problem,” “language-as-right,” and “language-as-resource.” He argues that the language-as-resource approach has advantages over the other two:

[I]t can have a direct impact on enhancing the language status of subordinate languages; it can help to ease tensions between majority and minority communities; it can serve as a more consistent way of viewing the role of non-English languages in US society; and it highlights the importance of cooperative language planning. (1984: 25–26)

He notes that such an approach is not without its problems, but that a “fuller development of a resources-oriented approach to language planning could help to reshape attitudes about language and language groups” (27). The idea that languages are resources appears, at first blush, to be a big improvement over the idea that languages are problems, especially for those who, in principle, support language diversity. However, the way in which this approach has been taken up in academic theorizing reveals how the language-as-resource metaphor is embedded within economic and, ultimately, nationalist discourses that tend to represent language(s) as commodities with primarily economic and political qualities and values. For example, Brecht and Rivers (2002) compare language planning to natural resource management. Spolsky (2009) claims that language managers control choices about language learning and use, analogous to business models of resource allocation. Ricento (2005a) found that the language-as-resource metaphor was prominent in texts published on various websites of organizations that strongly support the teaching and learning of Heritage languages in the United States. Using the methodology of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), Ricento found in the texts examined that languages were systematically conceptualized as commodities, de-linked to people or communities, with economic and military/security benefits as the primary reason they should be “cultivated,” “conserved,” and “developed.” The needs, interests, and aspirations of minority language communities themselves (let alone any intrinsic value of language diversity) are either not mentioned or are at the very bottom of the list of reasons Americans should support the learning of Heritage languages. If we position these texts within the broader sociohistorical context of languages in America, we can better understand why supporters might focus on a calculated strategic approach in promoting Heritage languages since the maintenance and teaching of minority/immigrant languages in the United States has generally been frowned upon, even outlawed in some states, (p. 532) throughout the twentieth century. By metaphorizing languages as commodities whose value lies in their utilitarian benefit in strengthening American security (especially salient in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ongoing shortage of linguistically competent security personnel) and promoting international trade, this discourse does not contradict the prevalent (but implicit) ideology of English monolingualism as “normal” and “desirable,” since in the documents analyzed, the learning of English is nearly always mentioned as being more important, that is, preceding, the learning (or maintaining) of Heritage (still characterized as foreign) languages. Ricento (2005a) argues that one of the reasons the campaign to significantly expand the capacity of foreign language learning has been unsuccessful, especially in “strategically important” languages such as Arabic, Mandarin, Farsi, Urdu, and Pashto, is because the use of non-English languages in public (and even private) space has historically been stigmatized as a sign of “foreignness” and being “unAmerican”; therefore, immigrant speakers of these languages in the United States, Canada, and other English-dominant countries tend to assimilate quickly into the “English monolingualism,” “English Only” expected cultural norm, leaving their “heritage” languages behind, or reserved for special purposes. The recent attempts to reinvigorate interest in the learning and use of these languages in the United States is, therefore, hampered by a more powerful ideological (but by now “commonsense”) framework that links the use of foreign languages with negative characteristics and motivations, including lack of patriotism, divided loyalties, and an unwillingness to “assimilate”. Thus, the ideology of English monolingualism, and English as the marker of national (American) identity, actually work against the (purported) “national interest” in developing “foreign” language resources and functional bilingualism at a time when there actually is a need to increase the supply of competent speakers of other languages, at least in terms of declared state interests in matters of national security and international trade.

Language Attitudes and Language Policy in Canada

The language situation in Canada shares characteristics with other English-dominant countries, while differing in important ways. Few countries have Canada’s unique combination of a high percentage of immigrants, substate nationalism (Quebec), and aboriginal people (Kymlicka 2004). None of the other English-dominant countries share all three of these features. Canada’s model of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework has come about as a compromise, largely as a response to social and political tensions that began soon after (p. 533) the British Conquest of 1760. The history of language policy development in Canada is invoked by academics and activists in the United States and elsewhere as being either exemplary or a failure, depending on the orientations, values, and ideologies of the commentator. What is certainly true is that language matters have been front and center in Canadian politics, especially since the inception of the “quiet revolution” in the 1960s, and there is no indication that this will change for the foreseeable future.

Of the five English-dominant countries, only Canada (officially bilingual: English and French) and New Zealand (officially trilingual: English, Maori, New Zealand Sign Language) have declared at least one language to be official at the federal level. However, in Canada, outside of the Province of Quebec, where nearly 86 percent of the population speak French and about 80 percent claim it as their mother tongue, English is the dominant language (only one Province, New Brunswick, is officially bilingual, although 67 percent of the population there speaks English as their first language, while Quebec has but one official language: French). Only about 17 percent of Canadians claimed to be bilingual English-French speakers in 2007 (Statistics Canada 2007), reflecting a stable trend (about 13 percent claimed English-French bilingualism in 1971). Thus, while Canada recognizes two official languages, most Canadians with French or English mother tongues are effectively monolingual (see table 26.1), although Francophones are far more likely to be bilingual than Anglophones (41 percent vs. 9 percent). And while 20 percent of the population claim neither French nor English as their mother tongue, less than 2 percent of the population claim they speak neither French nor English. These figures demonstrate that the “English fact” in North America continues to put pressure on French and that speakers of immigrant languages—especially outside of Quebec—acquire English as their customary language in schooling and the workplace.

However, the data on English-French bilingualism is quite misleading and obscures the percentage of people whose bilingualism is in an official language and another non-official language (or languages). Based on the census data in table 26.1, if we add to the 17.4% of the population who are French-English bilinguals the 12% who speak ‘other’ languages (in addition to French or English), we find that nearly 30% of Canadians enumerated in the census are at least fluently bilingual, a very substantial portion of the national population. And if we look more closely at cities like Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver, we will find much higher levels of bilingualism and trilingualism than are indicated by aggregate national figures. Jedwab (2007) notes that in the 2006 Census, 18.3% of the Montreal population (or about 660,000 people) claim to be trilingual (an increase of about 2% from the 2001 census data). Even more interesting is the fact that among persons in Montreal whose mother tongue is neither English nor French (i.e., allophones), constituting about 50.2% of the Montreal population, it is a fair assumption that they are trilingual to varying degrees. In addition, according to Jedwab (2007), 94,000 Montrealers report knowledge of four languages, representing nearly 3% of the metropolitan (p. 534) region’s population. In Canada, 2 million persons report knowledge of three languages, constituting 6.4% of the population. Yet, these facts about Montreal’s and Canada’s trilinguals are invisible in the Census data in which Provincial aggregate data minimize the fact of vibrant multilingualism in major urban centers, such as in Montreal.

Table 26.1. Canada’s official languages


Percentage (%)

Total population by mother tongue*









Non-official languages



Total population by knowledge of official languages



English only



French only



English and French



Neither English nor French



Total population by first official language spoken*









Neither English nor French



Total population by language spoken most often at home*









Non-official languages



*After distribution of multiple responses.

Source: Statistics Canada. 2007. Profile of Language, Immigration, Citizenship, Mobility and Migration for Canada, Provinces, Territories and Federal Electoral Districts (2003 Representation Order), 2006 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 94–577-X2006007. Ottawa.

Canadian Official Multiculturalism

Although French achieved co-equal status with English at the federal level as a result of the Official Languages Act of 1969, non-official languages received little attention. In recognition of this oversight, the first federal multiculturalism policy was announced by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1971. Berry (p. 535) (1998: 84–85) identified four elements stipulated in the policy: (1) the policy aims to avoid assimilation, and to promote “own group maintenance and development;” (2) the policy seeks to improve intergroup harmony by promoting “other group acceptance and tolerance;” (3) “intergroup contact and sharing” is required to lead to group acceptance; and (4) in order for cultural groups to attain full participation, a common language must be learned, that is, English and/or French.

After seventeen years, a Multiculturalism Act was passed in 1988. Unlike the original policy of 1971, the 1988 act focused mostly on the importance of the rights of aboriginal peoples, the equality of all Canadians, and equality of opportunity, regardless of race, national or ethnic origin, and color; freedom from discrimination based on culture, religion, or language; and the diversity of Canadians as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society. There was no mention of support for group maintenance and development necessary to avoid assimilation. These changes reflected a continuous and strong opposition from both French (Quebec) nationalists, who saw official multiculturalism as a strategy to undermine Canadian biculturalism (French/English) and the historical contribution of French Canadians by reducing their status to “just one of the ethnic groups” (Kymlicka 2004: 162), and from English-speaking assimilationists who considered the Multiculturalism Act to be divisive and impractical; they argued that immigrants should completely sever any ties to their countries of origin and embrace a Canadian identity and way of living:

The waves of immigrants that arrived on the prairies early in the 20th century were quickly cut off from the old country. That doesn’t happen to today’s immigrants; many maintain intimate links to their homelands…Only Canada, through its policy of official multiculturalism, actually encourages newcomers to cling to their original identities rather than fully embrace the identity of their new home. (Stoffman 2002: 42–43)

One in five English-speaking Canadians was born in another country (Statistics Canada 2006), compared to 11.8 percent in the United States who were born in another country. Recent polls suggest that the vast majority of Canadians (74 percent) support the federal policy of multiculturalism (Dasko 2004). However, a survey conducted in 1991 revealed that while Canadians generally support multiculturalism, they do not support governmental funding of policies and programs intended to support ethnic (i.e., allophone or indigenous) communities (Garcea 2004). Another interesting finding suggests that economic factors play a role in shaping attitudes toward multiculturalism. In the early 1990s, when the economy was in recession and the unemployment rate high, polls indicated that Canadians were less likely to accept multiculturalism (54 percent approval rate) than in 2002 (74 percent approval rate) when the economy picked up (Dasko 2004: 131). Younger and more educated people tend to be more appreciative of linguistic and cultural diversity, but a significant percentage believes that the multiculturalism policy gives too much power to ethnic groups. One in three university-educated Canadians under the age of 35 believes (p. 536) that aboriginal people have too much power, while one in seven considers that immigrants have too much power (Bibby 2004).

As in the United States, policy regarding Heritage languages (the term itself is fraught with implications of something old, with sentimental value) in Canada is largely symbolic; it symbolizes the self-ascribed belief that Canada is a mosaic of cultures and languages. The federal government does not directly fund heritage language classes. According to official policy, the government’s position is that the multiculturalism policy “aims to preserve and enhance the use of other languages, while strengthening the status and use of official languages” (Multiculturalism and Citizenship Canada 1991: 20). According to the Annual Report on the Operation of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (Canadian Heritage 2006–2007), the Multicultural Program of the Department of Canadian Heritage funds initiatives in four activity areas: support to civil society, research and policy development, support to public institutions, and public education and promotion. The stated goal of the Multiculturalism Program is to “support the removal of barriers related to race, ethnicity, cultural support or religious background that would prevent full participation in Canadian society” (Canadian Heritage 2006–2007: 9). No mention is made of support for minority languages in particular. The fragile truce that has existed for 40 years between Anglophone and Francophone Canada cannot, apparently, withstand the expansion of language rights to other groups.

Although important political goals have been achieved through the establishment of official bilingualism in Canada, namely, avoiding the fragmenting of the country into English-speaking Canada and an independent and French-speaking Quebec, the formalizing and implementation of language policy is primarily the responsibility of provinces and territories. This is also the situation in the United States, where education policies are devised and implemented at the state and local levels. Thus, even though the Canadian federal government may encourage ethnic groups to celebrate their cultures and languages by providing Multiculturalism grants to groups and associations in various provinces, it provides no funding for the teaching and learning of non-official languages. The federal funding that is provided is directed to support the teaching of one of the official minority languages in geographical areas where the other one is dominant. However, in about half of the Canadian provinces heritage language courses are offered after school hours or on Saturday (Early 2008). Some provinces offer fully bilingual programs in English and a heritage language. Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan collaborated to develop the Common Curriculum Framework for Bilingual Programming in International Languages, Kindergarten to grade 12 along with the Common Curriculum Framework for International Languages, Kindergarten to grade 12 (Ricento and Cervatiuc 2010: 34). In the province of Alberta, which is 90 percent Anglophone, all K-12 students are expected to be able to communicate in two languages, and in Calgary (Alberta), there are bilingual programs in English-Spanish, English-German, and English-Mandarin, in addition to Japanese language and culture courses (p. 537) and highly regarded French immersion and FSL (French as a second language) programs. Internationalizing the curriculum and developing linguistically competent graduates are aspirations that, at least, recognize the widespread monolingualism of native-born Canadians even if the political climate works against funding such programs. The teaching of heritage and international languages has been vehemently contested in some areas, including the metropolitan Toronto area, based on the belief that teaching languages other than the official ones (French and English) will promote cultural division and hinder immigrants’ integration into Canadian mainstream society (Cummins & Danesi 1990).

Language, Identity, and Language Policies

The preceding sections highlight some of the ways that attitudes about languages are often based on deeply held values that are often linked to emotions and “commonsense” beliefs about “us” and the “other” in society. In immigrant countries, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia (and increasingly in the United Kingdom and New Zealand), “otherness” may be based on perceived differences in ethnicity, race, culture, and language. In the end, the construct of ethnicity (like race) is a concept (i.e., linguistically coded) because humans pay attention to the way people look, talk, and behave and note how “their” group differs from the “other” groups they come in contact with. Ricento (2005b: 896), notes that “Glynn Williams (1999) argues that in American sociology, ethnicity became a dichotomized construct of the normative/standard group—a unitary citizenry speaking a common language (us)—and non-normative/nonstandard groups—including those speaking other languages—(them). This naturalizing of a sociological construct (ethnicity) informs the widely held popular view promoted by Western scholarship that ‘reasonable’ (modern) people should naturally become part of the culture of the state (or transnational world) and speak ‘its’ language, whereas ‘irrational’ (traditional) people will tend to cling to their ‘ethnic language and culture.’”

The connections between language and identity have been explored by interactional sociolinguists (e.g., Gumperz 1982; Heller 1995), who show that both the choice of language (code) and the use of the code in particular ways signal “social relationships based on shared or unshared group membership” (Heller, 1982: 5). Language is one, often very important, aspect of a person’s identity, and the degree to which it is an essential or non-essential element depends on many factors, both personal and societal (May 2001). For example, research in the United States indicates that language is an important component of the collective identification of Latinos (Garcia-Bedolla 2005). Sears et al. (p. 538) (1999) found that second- and third-generation Latinos progressively lose ties to their heritage language (Spanish) at the same time they are assimilating to mainstream US culture (as occurred with previous immigrants from Europe). Pita and Utakis (2002) examine the economic, political, social, cultural, and linguistic dimensions of the transnational Dominican community in New York City. They argue that in order to function effectively in their lives, members of this community require enriched bilingual bicultural programs in order to promote parallel development so that students can succeed in either country.

Language is mutable, that is, a person may learn other languages in addition to the one they first acquired, and may even decide to identify to greater or lesser degrees with a group to which they might “naturally” not belong, based on physical or cultural characteristics alone (Rampton 1995). Identity through language is also contingent and pragmatic; Hall (2002: 97), in a study of a Punjabi community in Leeds, England, found that “the use of Punjabi as a reified political symbol is contrasted with Sikh teenagers’ patterns of Punjabi language use….As they move through the social worlds that make up their everyday lives, Sikh teens actively construct linguistic practices that make use of a mixture of linguistic forms and styles in relation to influences, expectations, and interests that are situational and shifting. Sikh teens assess and reassess the value of Punjabi as they participate in different types of social interaction, media consumption, and cultural events.” Pennycook (2007) examines the ways in which English has been taken up, transformed, interpreted, and embedded in cultural forms throughout the world. His focus is on hip-hop, an idiom that originated in the United States but that has now been taken up and localized throughout the world. Just as a named language can no longer be thought of as a discrete, bounded system “belonging” to a group or nation, identity is better understood as performed through language—but not isomorphic with one code—and contingent, not an invariant trait.

However, as Pennycook (2007:113) notes, while to “use English” may mean many things, “to have a command of English sufficient to rap in the language may, in some contexts, imply a very particular class background.” Indeed, one’s ability to chose which language(s) to learn is constrained by factors such as social class, access to free (or private) education, gender, and occupation, among other variables. That is, one may be motivated to acquire English in North America, for example, and have the desire to assimilate into the mainstream English-speaking society, and yet be unsuccessful in achieving those goals. Norton (2000: 5) uses the term identity “to reference how a person understands his or her relationship to the world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how the person understands possibilities for the future.” Norton uses the term investment to characterize the complex motives and desires that language learners may have vis-à-vis a target language. Based on a study of five female immigrants in Canada, Norton (2000: 10) argues that “if learners invest in a second language, they do so with the understanding that they will acquire a wider range of symbolic and material resources, which will (p. 539) in turn increase the value of their cultural capital.” In order to understand why some immigrants, circumstantial bilinguals, and speakers of nonstandard varieties “fail” to acquire, or use, the dominant national language we must consider the social aspect of language learning, and especially the ways in which differences in power may impede integration even when an individual desperately wishes to assimilate or be accepted in society. Further, barriers that limit access to acquisition of cultural capital, such as poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and dead-end jobs can negatively affect a person’s desire to invest in acquiring the dominant language.

Understanding the reasons and motivations that inform decisions about the language(s) a person uses, or does not use, is important for research and theory-building in the field of second language acquisition. However, the ideologies of English monolingualism, standard language, the monoglot society, and even “language-as-resource” continue to influence the politics of language. The expectation that immigrants should “assimilate” or “integrate” linguistically and socially is not sensitive to the complex motives, desires, and actual language behavior of immigrants and speakers of nonstandard varieties. Hence, especially in the United States and Canada, because of the perception that the use of multiple languages in public and private life must lead to conflict and social instability, there has been a concerted and continuing effort to declare English the official language of the United States, to restrict or ban bilingual (mostly English/Spanish) programs in public schools, to reduce or eliminate bilingual ballots, and to essentially limit all foreign language materials and services except in certain federal departments and agencies, such as the State Department, Department of Defense, and in the areas of trade and commerce. The “facts” of multilingualism in the United States are viewed by significant portions of the country as a threat to their conception of American national identity, and a way to deal with the “problem” is to restrict domains for other languages while “sending a message” about the importance of English. Schmidt, Sr. (2006: 97) notes: “Because the central issues in language policy conflict revolve around competing attempts to socially construct group and individual identities, disputed questions of meaning and significance abound in the politics of language.” Schmidt, Sr. argues that “identity politics” is at the core of movements that seek to restrict the use of other languages while enhancing the status of English, as has been occurring in the United States, especially during the past 30 years (see Schmidt Sr. 2006).


It is virtually impossible to talk about language, and languages, apart from the worlds they inhabit. Although languages can be studied, analyzed, taught, and even cease to be spoken, they are never not embedded in all aspects of social life. (p. 540) Hence, in order to understand how languages gain or lose status, speakers, and power, researchers in Language Policy and Planning must avail themselves of a broad range of perspectives from core social science disciplines, including ethnography, geography, historiography, linguistics, political science, psychology, and sociology. With the advent of the state system beginning in the eighteenth century extending to the present day, governments have sanctioned particular language varieties as national languages, even though most territorial states are multilingual and multicultural. This means that non-dominant/minority language groups incorporated within the territory of the state have had to deal with their minority status over long periods of time, often leading to conflicts and uncomfortable accommodation with dominant language groups. However, people do not stay in one place, and, as Blommaert (2010: 6) notes, “Movement of people across space is…never a move across empty spaces. The spaces are always someone’s space, and they are filled with norms, expectations, conceptions of what counts as proper and normal (indexical) language use and what does not count as such.” Those who move from a place in which their language is dominant to a place in which it is not dominant, or even recognized, will find their identity and status challenged in unexpected ways (Blommaert 2008). Globalization and migration create unprecedented challenges in many domains of language policy and planning. Should everyone have the option to be educated in their “mother” tongue, have access to public services in the language(s) they speak and write, and enjoy the right to use their native language in the workplace? When such rights have been asserted or even granted by governmental authorities, as occurred in the United States with congressional passage of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, activists opposed to bilingualism or multilingualism have been quick to challenge them, with varying results (Ricento 1998b). In the end, these are all questions best responded to in terms of degree of recognition and accommodation rather than whether there should be recognition at all. However, in the case of the United States, false perceptions fuel emotional responses to non-existent problems. For example, the claim that Latinos are failing to assimilate to English (Huntington 2004) is directly contradicted by empirical research on patterns of language retention. Rumbaut, et al. (2006: 458), relying on data from two published studies and a survey they conducted themselves in Southern California during 2001–2004, conclude that “under current conditions…the ability to speak Spanish very well can be expected to disappear sometime between the second and third generation for all Latin American groups in Southern California.” They also found that “the average Asian language can be expected to die out at or near the second generation” (ibid). To account for such a wide discrepancy between the apparent facts and widely held misperceptions, it is necessary to consider the influence, and effects, of deeply held beliefs about language and identity that are resistant to contrary evidence. These beliefs are operationalized in political movements and policy positions that may, ironically, undermine the political and economic interests of the state. This strongly suggests that (p. 541) attitudes toward language(s) are fundamentally tied to identities, and hence emotions, despite loud protestations from those who seek to fortify the national language that they are only doing so out of concern for others’ (perhaps not as wise or perceptive as they) best interests, “others,” it turns out, whose motivations and desires are probably not understood or appreciated by “guardians of the national language.”


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