Why Is It…?


“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university educator over the last 17 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].


Q: Why is it that some Americans are vehemently opposed to others speaking languages other than English? I’ve often heard people say, “You’re in America now – so speak English!”


A: What makes this question particularly interesting is that, while language is intended to facilitate communication, it is frequently used as a tool of social divisiveness. This interesting form of social prejudice and discrimination dates back to the earliest records of human history and has been the basis of contention and debate for millennia. Language is used as a mechanism for cultural and political cohesiveness. Therefore, many see the presence of multi-lingual groups as a subversive threat to patriotism and national interests.


Linguistic prejudice is rooted in ethnocentrism – stemming from the ideology that certain ethnic groups are inherently superior to others. Often drawing distinctions along racial lines, some white Americans ascribe to notions of entitlement and equate the adoption and utilization of the English language with the acceptance of American ideals. However, this type of stereotypical reasoning is flawed when viewed in the context of our nation’s history.


English was certainly not the original, native language of the land we now call the United States. The indigenous people represented hundreds of Native American, tribal communities – each with its own specific language. With colonialism, came English-speaking settlers who forcibly imposed the English language on thousands of Native American children – in an effort to “strip them of their Indian-ness.” The same is true of African slaves who were systematically separated from members of their tribal community in an effort to divert attempts at organized revolt by breaking lines of spoken or written communication.


In this regard, language was used as a weapon, disabling the free flow of communication among social groups who were deemed as inferior, savage, and potentially threatening to the political, social, and economic interests of English speaking whites. The World Wars brought floods of non-English speaking, European whites to the U.S. – where German, French, Italian, Greek, and Polish speaking immigrants were viewed with the same contempt and disdain as Native American and African groups.


Most puzzling is the fact that so many descendents of European immigrants see fit to criticize and discriminate against those for whom English is a second language. I have witnessed several instances of second and third generation European-Americans making derogatory remarks about individuals or families belonging to a variety of non-English speaking cultures. It appears that many suffer from a certain degree of “selective memory” or utter denial – failing to acknowledge that their own ancestors struggled with the burdens of linguistic prejudice and discrimination that they so easily cast upon others.


In theory, we speak of America as the great “melting pot” – showcasing a testament to our country’s open acceptance of those seeking freedom from oppression, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Statue of Liberty). But in practice, we engage in daily acts of discrimination against those who appear, and sound, different from ourselves, as if their cultural and ethnic distinctiveness is a sort of social pariah – worthy of marginalization.


While the use of a common language may facilitate social engagement – it’s also true that one language cannot be regarded as sovereign. With ever-increasing globalization, we must learn to embrace human diversity or be swept away by its wake.

“A human being is part of the whole called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts, and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in all of its beauty…We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humankind is to survive.” (Albert Einstein).


Language is the music of the human spirit, with each distinct voice representing a unique instrument in our social symphony. How distasteful a prospect – to consider a symphony with only one, single tone or a garden with one type and color of flower, or meal with only one flavor. Why is it that, in so many areas, we strive for variety in sights, sounds, textures, aromas, and flavors, but in reference to the human condition, we stubbornly cling to values of homogeneity and separatism?