US Immigrants and the Dilemma of Anglo-Conformity

Social scientists have developed various paradigms to explain what happens when different cultures encounter each other: assimilation, acculturation, cultural pluralism, the melting pot. Some of these paradigms are theoretical; some purport to describe existing situations; others reflect visions of a better society. Each paradigm has implications for the languages of the respective cultures. These paradigms have been repeatedly applied to the United States, a country formed by colonization and immigration, resulting in significant racial and ethnic diversity. However, immigrants to the US have generally faced the pressures of a very specific paradigm, that of Anglo-conformity, which asks them to discard their cultures and languages for mainstream American culture and English.

The present paper begins with a review of the various paradigms of immigrant adaptation and their application to language in US history. I argue that two paradigms are most at play today, cultural pluralism and Anglo-conformity, the former generally tolerated but the latter expected. To demonstrate this, I offer two examples of prominent politicians publicly discouraging the use of Spanish. I contend that Anglo-conformity is fostering an anti-democratic atmosphere aimed at promoting English as the official language, ending bilingual education, and placing restrictions on legal immigration and citizenship, and on voter registration and voting.


Park & Burgess define assimilation as “a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons or groups, and, by sharing their experience and history, are incorporated with them in a common cultural life” (1921: 735). Several decades later, Weinstock describes it as “the complete loss of original ethnic identity in an individual or group of individuals leading to absorption into the dominant culture” (1969: 4). The assimilating group, then, loses the traits that make it different, including its language.

This is an essentially hypothetical paradigm. The accepting group, the “dominant culture” or “core society,” is more powerful than the group being accepted, and as such pulls the weaker one to it. However, the above definitions do not explain what would have to happen for the members of the non-dominant group to become accepted by the core society. Physical traits may continue to distinguish the subordinate group from the dominant group. Even if intermarriage occurred, these traits would not disappear. More crucially, the core group would have to want the non-dominant group to join it, and would have to agree to share its resources and privileges with the entering group.

Portes & Rumbaut (2001) acknowledge assimilation as the master concept in social theory and public discourse regarding how immigrants adapt to America. However, they believe that the expectation of foreigners and natives merging over time is unrealistic. Their research on second-generation immigrants today describes what they term segmental assimilation, in which “outcomes vary across immigrant minorities and… rapid integration and acceptance into the American mainstream represent just one possible alternative” (45). Factors affecting assimilation include the history of the immigrant first generation, the pace of acculturation in first and second generations, cultural and economic barriers faced by the second generation, the availability of family and community resources for confronting these barriers, and the response of the second generation to the lure of destructive countercultures (downward assimilation).


In popular discourse, acculturation is often used interchangeably with assimilation; however, they are quite different. Redfield et al. write, “Acculturation comprehends those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups” (1936: 149). Herskovitz writes more succinctly that acculturation is “the study of the cultural transmission process” (1949: 523). In these definitions, either culture may borrow from the other. Linton, however, qualifies the definition: “Other things being equal, a group which recognizes its social inferiority will borrow more extensively from its superiors than the superiors will borrow from it” (1940: 491f). Today, we reject such terms as “inferiority” and “superiority,” but the truth remains that the subordinate culture is much more vulnerable to accepting elements of the dominant culture than vice versa. Even though the dominant group may adopt superficial elements of the subordinate group’s culture, such as traditional foods and popular musical forms, the subordinate group is often pressured to assume more profound elements of the core society, such as ways of behaving and speaking.

This process is necessarily less radical than assimilation; the subordinate group is not absorbed into the dominant one. The subordinate group is changed without being wiped out. With reference to language, the nature of this change is ambiguous. The subordinate group may give up its language for the dominant group’s language. The subordinate group’s language may persist while adopting elements of the dominant group’s language. Subordinate group members may also become bilingual, using the dominant group’s language when interacting with members of that group and maintaining their own language when interacting with members of their own community.

Portes & Rumbaut (2001) also acknowledge variability within acculturation, in this case one which is dependent on the ways first- and second-generation immigrants deal with adaptation to their new homeland. Dissonant acculturation occurs “when children’s learning of the English language and American ways and simultaneous loss of the immigrant culture outstrips their parents’” (53). In consonant acculturation, “the learning process and gradual abandonment of the home language and culture occur at roughly the same pace across generations” (54). Finally, in selective acculturation, “the learning process of both generations is embedded in a co-ethnic community of sufficient size and institutional diversity to slow down the cultural shift and promote partial retention of the parents’ home language and norms” (54). According to the authors, selective acculturation has many benefits: lack of intergenerational conflict, a solid basis for the maintenance of parental authority, and the achievement of bilingualism, which consequently fosters in the second generation higher self-esteem, educational and occupational expectations, and academic achievement.

Another aspect of acculturation is the creation of creole languages. Creoles derive from pidgins, combinations of languages which emerge when people of several unintelligible languages come into contact. The most common situation in which pidgins developed was European colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries, in which dominated peoples were transported to the newly acquired lands as cheap or free labor. The need for these people, and the conquered people, to communicate with the European colonizers led to the creation of pidgins. When speakers of a particular pidgin married, their children learned the pidgin as a first language; it is at this point that a creole language was born.

Varieties of creoles developed, and exist today, along a continuum. At one end is the form most unlike the European language, and at the other, the form closest to the European language. Non-Europeans who can speak the latter variety of creole have been most likely to benefit economically and socially, becoming paid workers in direct contact with speakers of the European language. In post-colonial societies, these opportunities for advancement increased. However, complete acceptance into the world of the European ex-colonizers is generally impossible.

The role of a European language in a post-colonial society is thus one that creates significant tension. In English-speaking societies, where non-dominant groups speak a variety of English of their own, the privileging of standard English draws protests. For example, West Indian author Kamau Braithwaite has championed a literary movement in the use of what he calls “nation language,” a variety of English which incorporates Caribbean dialects as well as the hereditary cultures of Africa and India to evoke the lives of local peoples (Anniah Gowda 1994).

Bridging the Gap between Assimilation and Acculturation

Over the years, some social scientists have modified the term assimilation to designate a kind of cultural meeting which more closely resembles acculturation. Park modifies his definition of assimilation by defining social assimilation: An American immigrant may be said to have gone through social assimilation when “he has acquired the language and social ritual of the native community and can participate, without encountering prejudice, in the common life, economic and political…. He has shown he can ‘get on in the country.’” Park explains social assimilation as “a function of visibility. As soon as an immigrant no longer exhibits the marks which identify him as a member of an alien group, he acquires by that fact the actual if not the legal status of a native” (in Seligman 1930: 281). He acknowledges that this was relatively easy for the new European immigrants of his time, who within one generation could not be distinguished from older European Americans; American blacks and non-European immigrants “who bear a distinctive racial mark do not easily mix with the native populations.” The ability to take on the outward signs of the core society, then, is not “an index of fundamental national solidarity”; it is, instead, “a more superficial ‘like-mindedness,’ a mere veneer covering profound and more or less irreconcilable moral and cultural differences” (282).

Coining another term for a variation of assimilation, Rose views Asian Americans as deliberately opting for a superficial adaptation to the core society while remaining apart. He defines their characteristics: “a deep sense of ethnic identification; a high level of filial respect; a heavy emphasis on proper demeanor and on the seriousness of life; a firm belief in the importance of education; a tendency toward extrinsic assimilation (that is, taking on the superficial trappings of the dominant group – speech, dress, musical tastes – while remaining socially separate)”  (1989: 109).

For some researchers, the extent to which immigrants and their descendants adapt to American society is measured purely in terms of their economic capital. Thus, Valdez (2006: 397) defines socioeconomic assimilation as “the gradual process of incorporation, as immigrants and their descendants integrate into the United States economy.” In this view, nothing is mentioned of social acceptance, whether or not the newcomers become actual members of society.

A more organic link between acculturation and assimilation was articulated by Gordon (1964), who sees assimilation as a process, each step bringing the assimilating group more profoundly into the core society. He labels the first step behavioral or cultural assimilation or acculturation, described simply as change in cultural patterns. Further steps are the subordinate group’s joining the institutions of the core society, large-scale intermarriage, the acquisition by the subordinate group of a sense of peoplehood based on the core society, the absence of prejudice and discrimination on the part of the core society, and, finally, civic assimilation, in which the assimilating group is accepted to the extent that there is no evidence of value or power conflict. Thus, Gordon’s work fills in the gap left by definitions of assimilation which fail to explain how one group becomes absorbed into the other.

Gordon acknowledges that in reality the process is not always complete, but may end at any of the stages. He does articulate two possible types of civic assimilation. In one, the process is completely one-way; in the other, the result is a kind of “melting pot,” a cultural blending of the two groups. However, the process he articulates above is clearly one-way, involving the step-by-step incorporation of the non-dominant group into the core society.

The Melting-Pot

The idea of a melting-pot America is engrained in the culture of the nation. One of the earliest and most familiar references to such an America came from Michael- Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur, an 18th-century Norman nobleman who arrived with the French army, toured the British colonies and settled down as a farmer in upstate New York. His letters home, giving his impressions of the world new to Europeans, contain this passage:

He is an American who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our Alma Mater. Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. (de Crevecoeur 1904: 54-55)

The vision of a melting-pot America was popularized further in the early 20th century. Israel Zangwill, a British-Jewish playwright, wrote The Melting-pot: Drama in Four Acts, produced on Broadway in 1908 to huge success. In the play, David Quixano, a Russian-Jewish immigrant musician, composes a symphony meant to embody the spirit of his new homeland. In a rousing speech, he proclaims:

America is God’s Crucible, the great melting-pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your 50 groups with your 50 languages and histories, and your 50 blood hatreds and rivalries, but you won’t be long like that brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to – these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! German and Frenchman, Irishman and Englishman, Jews and Russians – into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American. (Zangwill 1939: 33)

In many respects, Quixano’s idealistic vision of America is at odds with the rest of the play. His family is disconcerted at the sacrifices to their religious observance necessary to survive in their new homeland. More disturbingly, at every encounter with society, the Quixanos confront virulent anti-Semitism. As Glazer & Moynihan (1970) explain, it seems highly unlikely that they, along with many other immigrant families, would be welcomed into a crucible churning out a new American; in the world outside the theater where the drama was being enacted, the huge wave of migration from Europe had already begun to elicit mounting nativist sentiments.

The success of the play appeared to be based on the public’s impression that it was a call for the dissolution of immigrant cultures and religions. This disturbed the playwright, and in the Afterword to the published edition, Zangwill describes the melting pot he envisions as “that which takes place in a human brotherhood without any surrender of one’s beliefs or ideals. In the eyes of David Quixano, the American constitution as it was laid down and built up by the Puritan fathers, by Washington or Lincoln, was a mere modern attempt to set up the Mosaic ideal of a perfect State” (cited in Leftwich 1956: 253). He would later add, “It was vain for Paul to declare that there should be neither Jew nor Greek. Nature will return even if driven out with a pitchfork. Still more if driven out with a dogma” (cited, ibid.: 254).

Whatever the definition of the melting pot may be, its hold on the American consciousness remains strong. Today it is used especially to invoke a time in the past when Americans were supposedly more united. For example, the noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. bemoans the replacement of a goal of a cohesive America with one that celebrates diversity and revived ancestral roots:

The vision of America as melted into one people prevailed through most of the two centuries of the history of the United States. But the twentieth century has brought forth a new and opposing vision…. A cult of ethnicity has arisen both among non-Anglo whites and among non-white minorities to denounce the idea of a melting-pot, to challenge the concept of “one people,” and to protect, promote, and perpetuate separate ethnic and racial communities. (1992: 14f)

Schlesinger’s concept of American history is in fact highly distorted. In contrast to the melting-pot notion of America, non-dominant groups, as we will see below, have mostly been pressured to conform to the more powerful, core society, which is convinced that it alone represents the essence of being “American.”

Marriage patterns today discourage the idea that a biologically new “melting-pot American” is in the offing. While marriage across race and ethnicity continues, it is not uniform across all groups. For instance, Sung (1990) explains that while the number of Chinese marrying non-Chinese has increased (owing to increased immigration), the rate of Chinese inter-ethnic marriages has remained constant. She predicts that the high rate of Chinese intra-ethnic marriage will continue; with the strength of new immigration and the low birthrate of Chinese in the United States, the population will be skewed toward first-generation immigrants, who are usually more conservative in their marriage patterns. Indeed, the continuation of immigration to the United States in general is likely to reinforce existing ethnic and racial groups, working against the goal of a melting pot.

To extend the melting-pot metaphor linguistically, all languages would jump into the pot along with their speakers. Out of the stew would emerge one, new language. This would not be an English creole, a variety of the common language shaped by elements of other languages. Instead, it would be a language in which English is merely one ingredient. Just as the creation of a new type of American is unrealistic, the possibility of a newly created language is equally so.

Cultural Pluralism

The term cultural pluralism is attributed to Horace Kallen, an early 20th-century college professor and philosopher. Like Zangwill, Kallen was wrestling with a personal dilemma: how to identify as both a Jew and an American. This struggle informed his wider thinking about a way to define an America which allowed the maintenance of ethnic identity and consciousness within the larger concept of one nation. Kallen despised the notions of assimilation and melting pot, instead proposing the metaphor of an orchestra, each group playing its own instrument, producing harmony. Variety, he argued, would enrich America, as groups borrowed from each other and new ideas emerged.

At the time Kallen was forming these ideas, strong forces in America were working against them. World War I brought on a wave of nativism and suspicion about the loyalties of ethnic groups; elected officials, including Theodore Roosevelt, railed against the idea of “hyphenated Americans.” An Americanization campaign was begun to erase the cultures and languages of new immigrants while enforcing uniformity of dress and behavior, establishing English-language requirements in school, and eliciting loyalty pledges. Kallen countered that Americanization was much more layered and complex; a more productive society would result from allowing ethnic groups to contribute to American life rather than demanding Anglo-Saxon culture as the norm (Greene 2006, Fishman 2004).

Kallen’s definition of a nation based on cultural pluralism first appeared in his book Culture and Democracy in the United States:

Its form would be that of a federal republic; its substance a democracy of nationalities, cooperating voluntarily and autonomously through common institutions in the enterprise of self-realization through the perfection of men according to their kind. The common language of the commonwealth, the language of its great tradition, would be English, but each nationality would have for its emotional and involuntary life its own peculiar dialect or speech, its own individual and inevitable esthetic and intellectual forms. The political and economic life of the commonwealth is a single unit and serves as the foundation and background for the realization of the distinctive individuality of each nation that composes it and of the pooling of these in a harmony above all. (1924: 124).

Kallen was the one of the first thinkers to conceive of a multicultural, multilingual America. He saw that ethnic groups could be bilingual, using both English and their heritage languages. His ideas received support from many intellectuals, but there were stumbling blocks. Kallen never explained what a positive program of cultural pluralism would be like. He wrote specifically about European immigrants; while he promised to address non-Europeans, such as American blacks, at a later time, he never did. Also, the relevance of his concerns waxed and waned with changing times. In the 1920s immigration law favored Western Europeans, and nativism faded. It resurfaced in World War II, which brought suspicion of the German language, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and the adding of Italian Americans to the enemy alien list. Renewed nativism brought with it diminished tolerance for ethnic diversity.

Still, Kallen’s concept of cultural pluralism left its mark. In the years following the publication of his book, the melting pot was redefined to sound more like cultural pluralism. Cultural pluralism became allied with theories of antiracism. It led the way to, and was eventually replaced by, multiculturalism, a more militant and political movement responding to the neglect of blacks, Asians and Native Americans. With changes in immigration laws in the 1960s, the major sending countries to the United States became Latin America and Asia; this revived interest in issues of immigrant adaptation and language diversity and renewed nativism (Meyer current volume; Whitfield 1999). The current wariness toward newcomers resulting from 9/11 and the mounting numbers of undocumented migrants have added to nativist sentiments. Kallen’s ideas, adapted to present-day reality, have great relevance today.


According to Abramson, the prevailing view of the future of the United States during the 19th century was one of Anglo-conformity, “the development of the American people, with the inevitable exclusion of blacks and Indians, as an assimilation to the ethnicity of the English, transplanted to America. The process would evolve over time, changing Anglo Saxons and other Europeans and their descendants into … ‘non-English Englishmen’” (in Thernstrom 1980: 152). Different ethnic groups “would become part of the English Protestants in culture, structure and identity…. The dominant group, in this case, would not change but would be large enough to receive others into the ethnic background” (151). Greer (1972: 87) defines this paradigm, “the most prevalent ideology in American history,” as “the belief on the part of ‘native Americans’ that foreigners should give up their past cultural identity entirely and take on the social and cultural habiliments of their new homeland.”

More recently, Anglo-conformity has taken on other shades of meaning. Just as Valdez (2006: 397) describes assimilation as the socioeconomic integration of newcomers, she defines Anglo-conformity in economic terms as well: it is “classic assimilation theory,” predicting “a pattern of gradual convergence to the socioeconomoic outcomes of middle-class, non-Hispanic whites.” Her research on data from the 2000 Census on Mexican Americans reveals segmented assimilation in economic terms: poorly educated, low-wage Mexicans experience downward assimilation to the permanent US underclass, while highly educated, high-wage Mexicans experience a gradual upward trend toward Anglo-conformity, approximating but not achieving parity with the wages of US-born non-Hispanic whites. She explains that the latter group still faces the consequences of a “negative context of reception” (399), general hostility toward Mexican Americans in the mainstream population.

Whether Anglo-conformity is an assimilation or an acculturation process is ambiguous. Vadez (2006) suggests that the larger society is not likely to accept all immigrants and their descendants into its fold. The dominant culture may claim that outsiders will join it merely by discarding their outward characteristics and acquiring those of the dominant culture. In reality, however, the biological characteristics which often mark members of the non-dominant culture, and the prejudices that exist against them within the dominant culture, may serve to keep them from full membership. The end-process of Anglo-conformity may in reality fall somewhere along the continuum described by Gordon (1964).

As Gordon explains, Anglo-conformity and the melting pot were dominant forces in the early history of the country. The original colonizers were largely from Northern and Western Europe. English Protestants dominated numerically, while other Europeans – Germans, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, Swedish, and Swiss – were easily absorbed into the larger group. All of the settlers shared cultural and racial characteristics, and intermarriage among them was common. English Protestant culture, however, remained the norm. The term to describe this period might aptly be one of biological melting pot and cultural Anglo-conformity. This prevailed through the War of Independence. After that, the make-up of the nation became more complex: Large waves of immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia asserted themselves culturally; Native Americans were herded into reservations; blacks were emancipated but remained outside mainstream society. The melting pot was no longer either a realistic or a desired possibility; instead, expectations of Anglo-conformity prevailed.

Expectations for the linguistic adaptation of immigrants have largely followed the lines of Anglo-conformity. As Daniels’s (1991) analysis of American history shows, during the great wave of European immigration from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries, immigrant languages flourished in the United States for a while – serving as the languages of publications, schooling, and religious institutions – but were eventually overtaken by English. Linguists have also documented the fate of immigrant languages in the United States. Haugen (1956: 11) writes that just as “native peoples have had bilingualism thrust upon them,” immigrant languages “have remained more or less temporary means of communication among officially unrecognized groups. Political and social pressures have uniformly been unfavorable to their continued use and have gradually whittled down their constituencies. For many immigrant groups, bilingualism has been a bridge to membership in the new nation.” Macías (1979: 96) writes, “In an immigrant country, the notions of language and culture change lead one to assume non-English language loss over time. To speak another language is only a temporary phenomenon.” This assumption has informed the US government’s focus on transitional language policies, meant to help immigrants shift from their native languages into English, rather than policies supporting the maintenance of immigrant languages.

Paradigms of Adaptation: Two Cases of Conflict

There is no doubt that cultural pluralism is a part of American life, especially in large cities. Korea Towns, Little Italies, and Chinatowns abound. ATM machines around the country offer services in a variety of languages; parades and festivals celebrate Americans’ cultural ancestries. But this cultural democracy meets resistance when it is paired with expectations of Anglo-conformity and hot-button issues like immigration.

Undoubtedly, the issue of immigration has lately taken up a lot of the space of popular discussion in the United States, and within this discussion the topic of language has emerged. Unsurprisingly, public officials often enter into this discussion. In the case of two such officials, their comments regarding the use of Spanish in daily life, set against the raging debates over immigration, drew public response. Especially of interest is the contrast between the rhetoric and the practice of these officials regarding the use of languages other than English.

It should be noted that the Spanish language receives more attention in the United States than any other non-English language. This is largely due to its ubiquity: The US Census Bureau (2006) reports that 53% of the foreign-born population, or 18.3 million people, are from Latin America. Public officials court the growing Latino vote by speaking to crowds in often strained, elementary Spanish. However, the language also carries with it a stigma. The Mexican border was the crossing-point of 60–75% of the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants who are in the country illegally, according to data from the March 2004 Current Population Survey (Passell 2005). Since many newcomers from Central America and Mexico enter this way, and since many legal migrants coming from these areas are poor, the Spanish language itself has come to be identified with people who are unskilled, needy, and often without proper authorization – in short, people who are seen by many as a burden to their adopted homeland.

For these reasons, displays of Spanish in public may bring to the surface a clash of values and, consequently, competing ideas about the ways immigrants should adapt to US society. One such clash occurred in the spring of 2006. As Senate hearings on immigration reform were set to resume after a hiatus, Hispanic groups were preparing simultaneous, pro-immigration rallies around the country. In support of the event, music producer Adam Kidron released “Nuestro Himno” (“Our Hymn”), a Spanish-language version of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem, sung by several popular Latino singers. The song received a lot of air time on Spanish-language radio programs. Another version of it, with English lyrics added, was planned for an album called “Somos Americanos” (“We are Americans”), part of whose profits would go to a Washington-based pro-immigration coalition (USA Today 2006).

In the weeks that followed, a number of people voiced their ire over the song. To them, changing the language of the anthem put into question the singers’ patriotism. For example, in a blog article Bryanna Bevens wrote of the song’s producers: “These people are shameless!… They want to prove how American they are… seriously, that’s what they said.” The translation appeared to transgress the sanctity of the song; Bevens (2006) wrote, “If you want to say these things, put them on your poster board, but don’t put them on the national anthem.” Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank supporting tighter immigration control, said, “Would the French accept people singing the La Marseillaise in English as a sign of French patriotism? Of course not” (USA Today 2006).

It was not surprising that the matter was brought to President George W. Bush’s attention. Responding to a reporter’s question, he stated, “I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English. And I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English, and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English”  (Baker 2006). Like Bevens, Bush suggested that speaking English is a sign of good citizenship; alternately, speaking Spanish shows that one is unworthy of citizenship. Also, Bush connected the use of Spanish with a lack of desire to learn English, suggesting that singers of the Spanish-language anthem don’t know and perhaps don’t want to know English.

The hypocrisy in Bush’s statement was evident. A resident and former governor of Texas, a state with many Mexican Americans, Bush often uses Spanish in public appearances. At the 2000 Republican National Convention, where he was nominated for president, his nephew, part Latino himself, gave a speech in Spanish. According to The Black Commentator (2006), during Bush’s first presidential campaign he often went to Hispanic festivals and joined in singing a Spanish-language version of the “Banner”; his 2001 inaugural ceremony featured an English-Spanish version of the song by Jon Secada.

Spanish-language versions of the “Star-Spangled Banner” have actually been a part of American life for some time. The Black Commentator (2006) points out that the US Bureau of Education commissioned such a version of the song in 1919, and that four Spanish-language versions appear on the US State Department’s website. A 1995 word-for-word translation of the first three stanzas appears on the website It is apparent that as long as cultural pluralism remains in the background, it is unnoticed and unchallenged, but, especially when it involves Hispanic language and culture, when it comes to the attention of mainstream society, it meets resistance.

It may be inevitable that the original song, written in 1814, would undergo change, and many support such change. In response to the president’s remarks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an accomplished pianist, said, “I’ve heard the national anthem done in rap versions, country versions, classical versions. The individualization of the American national anthem is quite underway” (Baker 2006). Sanneh (2006) reminds us that the 1960s rock star Jimi Hendrix’s version of the song, “with guitar pyrotechnics echoing the battlefield pyrotechnics, was once seen as a provocation; now it’s often treated as an exuberant expression of patriotism.”

In light of this, it is logical to view “Nuestro Himno” as an individualized version of the nationally recognized song. The song itself is more than a mere translation. Like the original, written during the War of 1812, “Nuestro Himno” calls for the defense of the nation and refers to the flag as a symbol of freedom. Lines are added, however, which call for brotherhood and the equality of all; “my people” are urged to fight on and “break the chains” (NPR 2007). These lines apparently refer to the fight for the rights of immigrants and Latinos in general (non-immigrant Puerto Ricans and other Latinos participated in the pro-immigration rallies). Sanneh (2006) regards the song as an expression of both political activism and cultural pride. The song’s producer stated that the song was never intended to usurp the traditional anthem (USA Today 2006); in other circumstances, the rally participants would most likely join in with others to sing the original version.

In his comment and in his actions, President Bush has demonstrated two contrasting ideologies. On the one hand, in his public life, he has had to acknowledge that cultural pluralism is a reality of American life; Spanish is a language that will not go away, and the Hispanic vote is important for any political candidate. On the other hand, in his comments on the Spanish-language anthem, Bush appeared to be offering a concession to those who take a hard line on immigration reform and who support an Anglo-conformity view of immigrant adaptation; for the latter group, shows of cultural pluralism are seen as threats to national unity, and the presence of Spanish is one such threat.

A second incident occurred in June 2007. The Austrian-born governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, appearing before a meeting of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), was asked how Hispanic children could improve academically. He responded, “You’ve got to turn off the Spanish television set” and avoid Spanish-language media in general. He claimed that he had learned English when he first arrived in the country by using it all the time. Responding to the comment, Alex Nogales of the National Hispanic Media coalition called the governor’s remarks naïve, pointing out that immigrants need Spanish-language media to stay informed and function in their new surroundings (USA Today 2007). Another attendee, however, said that most members of NAHJ would agree with Schwarzenegger that “we must learn English to succeed in American society” (Thanawala 2007).

When this article was posted on USA Today’s website, it received a slew of responses, most of them in support of the governor’s statement. There were stories of immigrant parents who immersed themselves in English upon coming to the United States and of American travelers using only the language of the country they were visiting. Current immigrant parents who teach their children their native language were accused of holding their children back and relegating them to a life of poorly-paid employment. The comment by Nogales was called self-serving, since the Hispanic media relies on the continued use of Spanish for its existence (USA Today 2007).

Schwarzenegger’s comment is in fact not surprising. The governor has had a long association with US English, the organization which is in its third decade of advocacy for English as the official language and against bilingual education. His name appears on the organization’s stationery as a member of the board of advisers. In a book published by US English, Schwarzenegger offers his own story of immigration, inspired by his desire to break away from a family life that was “traditional, regimented, and devoid of high aspirations or expectation” (de la Peña 1991: 44). He attributes his success to “a solid command of English and a strong drive to be accepted as an American” (47). On a trip home he realized that he could no longer be Austrian, that, in his words, “I had much more the American spirit” (45).

Schwarzenegger’s story shares the common theme with the other immigrant stories in the book: in order to make it in America, it is necessary to give up all that you brought with you. However, it isn’t clear that Schwarzenegger’s success in America was a result of his focus on assimilation. His initial success, as a competitive body builder, was based on skills that were decidedly non-linguistic. Schwarzenegger’s claim of making himself a tabula rasa for the implanting of American-ness does not jive with reality. Shortly after the publication of de la Peña’s book, Schwarzenegger opened a restaurant in California serving Austrian cuisine. Stephen Krashen (personal communication, July 6, 2007), professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that Schwarzenegger has previously commented that the improvement he made in English proficiency was greatly aided by taking ESL classes (not by curtailing his use of German). Krashen believes that Schwarzenegger’s solid education in his native language and his wide real-world experience also helped his acquisition of English. In addition, Schwarzenegger’s claim that he gave up speaking German when he came to the United States is surprising to those who have had contact with him. Krashen was a member of the same Los Angeles gym as Schwarzenegger in the 1970s and remembers that he often exercised while chatting in German with a friend.

It becomes apparent from the circumstances of Schwarzeneger’s immigrant story that the comparison of his experience to those of children he doesn’t know was imprudent. Schwarzenegger was an adult when he arrived. His migration was not part of a large exodus of people fleeing economic deprivation; he was not part of group that was less than welcomed into the United States. Schwarzenneger did not share the experience of the children of this group, who entered a school system largely unresponsive to their needs.

In addition, had he come in another era, he would have found significantly less acceptance of his use of his native language. During World War I, the National Council of Defense conceived a plan to encourage German Americans to abandon their heritage language. Some cities passed laws suppressing the public use of German, and some states prohibited the instruction of German in private and public schools. After the war such restrictionism eased, but attacks on the German language resurged when the country entered World War II (Kloss 1977; García 1992). One wonders how Schwarzenneger would have responded had he not been able to use his native language freely while he sought to improve his proficiency in English.

Finally, in his remarks to the Hispanic journalists, Schwarzenegger displayed little knowledge about optimal conditions for the education of limited-English-proficient students. Studies show that successful academic performance is not connected with how much English these children are exposed to; there are cognitive advantages to bilingualism which aid academic achievement (Cummins 1979; Bain & Yu 1978), and the acquisition of English is not harmed by first-language development (Ramirez et al. 1991). Also, those who make use of Spanish-language media are mostly adult immigrants; Hispanic children and teens, like other second- and third-generation immigrant children, usually orient themselves to American culture and the English language no matter what their parents do (Sontag 1993; Rodriguez 1999). Finally, the reporter’s question may not have referred specifically to Spanish-dominant children; many English-dominant Hispanic children fare poorly in the American educational system (Cummins 1987). This makes Schwarzenegger’s comment even more ill-considered.

The Consequences to Society of Anglo-conformity

In these two instances of public discourse on immigrant adaptation and the use of Spanish, the strength of the idea of Anglo-conformity is evident. For some people who have commented on these incidents, the mere presence of Spanish in the public arena is connected to a lack of interest in learning and using English and, consequently, a rejection of the American ethos, patriotism to the country, and a sense of citizenship. Continued use of one’s heritage language is considered a roadblock to the acquisition of English and to academic success. Anglo-conformity holds out the promise, if not the guarantee, of success in America. The idea that two languages can coexist in a subset of Americans with no diminution of that group’s sense of being American and no threat to national unity, as described by Kallen (1924) in his definition of cultural pluralism, and as described as an asset by Portes and Rambaut (2001), is difficult for many Americans to grasp. The challenge that this poses to Spanish-speaking Americans, many of whom are not inclined to submit to Anglo-conformity, is significant.

As Hartman (2003) explains, when English is held up as the preferred language, those who speak another language are marked as “different” and inferior. It is this act of categorizing people according to outward differences that is the basis of racism, and the basis of the system of colonization under which the major Western states took control over much of the non-Western world. The colonized strive to become as much like the colonizers as possible, a goal which holds out the promise of an improved life but which is, ultimately, unreachable. Skuttabb-Kangas (1990: 11) maintains that as biologically-based racism has become increasingly untenable, it has been replaced by ethnicism and linguicism, in which “certain ethnic groups, cultures and languages… are claimed to be fitter to rule than others, expand, and be learned by others.” In this way, the dominant group, culture or language legitimizes and ensures the perpetuation of its superior status.

The above views parallel those of Edward Said and the concept of Orientalism, “a system of representations … through which the West sought to understand and control its colonized populations,” a discourse “that both assumes and promotes a fundamental difference between the Western ‘us’ and the Oriental ‘them’” (Rizvi & Lingard 2006). According to Said, it was essential for colonizers to view the colonized as inferior, in a number ways, in order to justify and rationalize imperialism. In the current US context, Spanish is rationalized as a language that connotes a number of negative attributes; in this way, the marginalization of the Hispanic population by the privileged class is justified.

It is instructive to examine the distinctions that were drawn in the above examples. A person speaking English is considered to be superior to a person speaking Spanish. The former individual does not have to worry about being seen as a “bad immigrant” (or an immigrant at all), a person unworthy of citizenship, or a “bad American.” Those who know only English, who are born and/or brought up in the United States into English-speaking families, are automatically “safe.” Those who speak Spanish may in reality fall into several linguistic categories: they may be bilingual (citizens or not); they may be recent immigrants who haven’t yet learned English; or they may be long-term immigrants who have minimal or no proficiency in English, due to their low socio-economic status. However, at the moment any of these people use Spanish – singing a Spanish-language song, listening to Spanish-language radio or watching Spanish-language television – they run the risk of being lumped into the subordinate category.

The hegemony of the English language poses a serious threat to an open, democratic society. The English-only movement, a thirty-year effort to make English the official language of all states and the nation, thrives on the notion of the importance of English to American society. Norman Shumway, a Congressman who sponsored several versions of the English Language Amendment, writes that English is “the ‘glue’ which has held us together, forging strength and unity from our rich cultural diversity.” Without the legal protection of the law, he explains, “the primacy of English is being threatened, and … we are moving toward the status of a bilingual society” (1988:121). As noted in the discussion of Schwarzenegger, English-only advocates believe that “good immigrants” give up native languages and cultures in order to accept American culture and English. They further believe that today’s immigrants largely reject this path, although this is contradicted by current research (Nicolau & Valdivieso 1992; Wong Fillmore 1991). Once immigrants are labeled “bad immigrants,” it is easier for governments and certain non-immigrant groups to make life more difficult for them.

First, if governments cannot communicate with those who are not proficient in English, many opportunities and services that are due them may never reach them. Already under attack by the official-English movement is federal law mandating bilingual assistance and balloting to certain minority-language communities (Dicker 2003). With some states now mandating identification cards for voter registration, it is not unreasonable to imagine a state imposing English-language requirements for registering and voting as well.

Second, Anglo-conformity philosophy has already infiltrated proposed federal legislation, most recently that proposing changes in immigration law. The “Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007,” which did not get out of the US Senate, has typical official-English wording in one of its provisions, calling English the “common” language of government and giving government the responsibility of preserving and enhancing its role. It proposes a complex, merit-based system for the acceptance of legal immigrants, with applicants gaining points for advanced educational degrees and high proficiency in English. Those who enter the country without proper documentation would be allowed to stay by satisfying a number of requirements, including showing an attempt to learn English by enrolling in or having their names on a waiting list for English classes. The Secretary of Education is charged with developing an Internet site for the teaching of English to those who speak other languages (Heritage Foundation n.d.)

This legislation clearly ramps up the importance of English to newcomers. Merely applying for entry into the country would require English language proficiency, which privileges applicants from the upper classes of their home countries. There is little in the legislation that offers concrete help to immigrants who want to learn English. Putting one’s name on a waiting list for an English class shows intent, but what if the potential student’s name never gets off the list? In fact, this provision suggests that the writers of the legislation already know that the supply of adult ESL classes is not sufficient for current demand (Santos 2007). McHugh et al. (2007) document the inadequacy of the American education system in light of the enormity of the task of teaching English to immigrants to the extent required under the terms of the Senate bill. Finally, an Internet learning system is limited to those who have access to computers, and there is little evidence to date that such an approach to language acquisition is effective.

Third, bilingual education, a proven, successful approach to educating non-English-proficient children, is also threatened by an Anglo-conformity view of society. Although this methodology reaches only a small percentage of such children, it is under constant threat of extermination, in a campaign begun by Ron Unz in California in 1998 (Dicker 2003). Once this approach to education is blocked, it becomes more difficult for such children to attain high academic achievement. As a result, the upward mobility of entire minority-language communities is thwarted. Furthermore, Anglo-conformity advocates may justify eliminating bilingual education by claiming that transforming children into bilingual adults makes them “bad” Americans. (Privileged Americans do prize bilingualism for themselves, but the languages they value are generally those not spoken by large, low-status immigrant and minority groups. And they acquire their second languages in elite systems of education not available to low-status Americans.)


Several contrasting paradigms have been applied to describe how differing cultures have interacted in United States history and how today they should interact with each other: assimilation, acculturation, Anglo-conformity, cultural pluralism, and the melting pot. While the last of these remains in the collective imagination as the most democratic of paradigms, and while some hark back to an imaginary time in which this paradigm described the reality of American life, the overriding force in the cultural reality of the United States has been Anglo-conformity. Linguistically, Anglo-conformity requires the substitution of local or immigrant languages for English. Anglo-conformity ideology is reflected in public discourse on the role of Spanish in American society, as in the two cases discussed here.

Anglo-conformity is not universally accepted, however; while some may buy into its necessity, others see cultural pluralism as a viable alternative. More importantly, a society in which Anglo-conformity is expected is one which offers fertile soil for the growth of anti-democratic movements, such as those calling for making English the official language, ending bilingual education, restricting legal immigration and citizenship, and restricting voter registration and voting. Clashes between these perspectives will continue to be played out in the public, and especially political, arenas.


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