Comparing Linguistic Diversity: Minority Language Use in Israel and the United States

AHA Session 101
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Morgan Suite (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
John Bezis-Selfa, Wheaton College (Massachusetts)
Farina Mir, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

Linguistic theorists such as Philippe Van Parijs and Will Kymlicka make a strong case that the extension of language rights to minority language groups is a civil right and that linguistic justice should be a priority for the world as English increasingly becomes the lingua franca. Language politics differ by country, but much of the focus of these scholars is on their native countries of Belgium and Canada. Historians can show that the diversity of linguistic policy is much richer by expanding this study to the United States and other countries.

Studies of the politics of language are not new to history, but they are largely absent from certain subfields like Latino history or focus largely on loss of language rather than retention and the ways that language impacts individual and community sense of identity. This session seeks to address some of these absences and also to put United States history into the international discussion of language politics. It spans multiple languages across a century and focuses on the multifaceted choices that go into language usage and the ways in which language choices shifts the dominant historical narrative and provide access into smaller community realities. The speakers do so by looking at a period of increasing national allegiances. At the same time, these nations are also looking outward towards relations with a larger international community where knowledge beyond the nationally sanctioned language is useful or encouraged.

The session begins in the late 19th century where Rosina Lozano reaffirms that English is not native in all parts of the United States nor was it always used in the legal, political, or social realm. This is seen through the New Mexico territory where the federal government must come to terms with and make concessions for citizens whose sense of identity includes using and retaining the Spanish language. Liora Halperin expands the story beyond the United States and single language policy as she tells the story of varied language use among many pro-Hebrew Zionists between World War I and 1948 who retained a commitment to the nationally sanctioned Hebrew, but remained tied to their other linguistic cultural backgrounds. The United States once again had to contend with its language policy during World War II. Zevi Gutfreund examines the wartime debate over Japanese language schools. While internment camps banned Japanese language instruction, the U.S. Army recruited Japanese Americans to study their native language and provide military intelligence and interrogation.

This panel takes issues of colonialism, race, and diaspora and uses language to explain the level to which national allegiances are tied (or not tied) to language. Aside from being of use to historians with these interests, the session should have broad appeal as all individuals speak a language and understand the differing responses that emerge from entering a space where an unfamiliar language is spoken. These issues of language use and justice therefore transcend history and affect our understanding of everyday experiences.

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