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Thomas Knapp: ‘Language’ Arguments Against Immigration Freedom are a Tower of Babble

When debating immigration policy with people who have deluded themselves into believing that it’s any of their business where other people choose to live or work, I run into a lot of bad arguments. Of all those arguments, probably the silliest is “but they don’t speak English.”

The simplest, and most appropriate response to that argument comes from comedian Doug Stanhope: “Then don’t talk to ’em.” Problem solved. But I can’t get a whole column out of that response, so let’s take apart the fake “issue” in a little more detail.

Often, the argument starts off with fake tones of sympathy. Those poor immigrants — how will they ever get jobs and “assimilate” if they don’t know “the national language?” Send them back for their own good!

Oddly, the same people almost always immediately turn to the claim that “MY grandparents came here from [insert country], and you know what they did? They learned English!”

Clue: Your grandparents weren’t special exceptions. Most immigrants who don’t already know English will learn it, especially if their career ambitions require them to.

The next turn is generally something along the lines of “English is the ‘national language,’ and no nation can survive without a common language.”

English is a fairly dominant language in the US at this time, although Spanish seems to be gaining. But the US has never had a “national language.” It’s always hosted a mix.

The Declaration of Independence was initially published in the five most common American languages as of 1776: English, French, German, Dutch, and Spanish.

English really started gaining dominance in the 20th century, after the US government drafted millions of men into the armed forces for World War Two and insisted they be able to take orders in English (in the previous largest US military mobilization, for the Civil War, the Union army formed segregated regiments of e.g. German speakers).

But there are still entire urban neighborhoods where one might walk several blocks and hear nothing but Mandarin or Yiddish or Russian or Hindi. And in large swaths of the country, Spanish competes with English for dominance.

A single common language in a country is the exception — and in countries with populations of more than 200 million there are no such exceptions — not the rule.

India, for example, boasts 23 “official” languages, 122 “major” languages, and, according to its 2001 census, 1,599 other languages.

While forceful government policy has made Mandarin the dominant “first language” in China, more than 300 other languages survive.

Typical among western European countries is Belgium, with three “official” and several regional languages, in addition to nearly 40% of the population speaking English.

There are no good arguments for immigration authoritarianism, but the  “they don’t speak English” dodge is easily the least convincing.


Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

9 Comments

  1. Robert Milnes Robert Milnes February 20, 2022

    Tom, aka :Anarchy Now! Tom,
    I am not an immigration or linguistics expert, but as candidate, immigration is an important topic to me.
    An obvious major flaw in your argument is that I would not think all those languages in China and/or India
    could be considered ” immigrant” languages.
    On the other hand, in colonial America, ALL the people were immigrants. Except of course the indigenous.
    Mostly from western and northern Europe.
    Further Europe is a much smaller area compared to China and India, which are themselves neighbors in a much larger area, Asia.
    Just out of curiousity, I checked on Switzerland. There are like Belgium, a few official languages. French, German, Italian, Romansch. But no English or…Swiss!
    My question to you is why are you writing about this when the issue of third party elections, including libertarian, are much more important and urgent? Play your cards right, might could win in 2022!
    Wouldn’t that be nice for a change?
    And what are you going to do if The Solutrean Hypothesis turns out to be true? Which I believe so.
    Prehistoric people from north western Europe crossed the glaciated Atlantic long before Asians crossed the Bering Strait?
    What to do about it NOW?
    You are going to be one very confused anarchy now libertarian.

  2. Darcy G Richardson Darcy G Richardson February 20, 2022

    My dear friend Tom Knapp, one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met and arguably the country’s most thoughtful and profound libertarian polemicist, is right on target when he claims that the United States has never had a national language — except, of course, for “Gibberish,” the official language of almost every successful politician from the Potomac down to the local level.

    Dump the Duopoly!

  3. Darcy G Richardson Darcy G Richardson February 20, 2022

    Tom Knapp is a national treasure and I’m so glad IPR, like an increasing number of other news outlets, is publishing his columns on a regular basis.

    Tom is brilliant and is probably this nation’s most under appreciated writer.

  4. Darcy G Richardson Darcy G Richardson February 20, 2022

    Like the best people in this country —- those who could improve it immensely if they had the chance — Tom Knapp, one of the best writers this young nation ever had, lives in the shadows, largely overlooked by the mainstream media.

    The American people — everyone who still views this country as a beacon of freedom — should be reading Tom’s insightful columns.

    I’m so grateful that Austin Cassidy is publishing his columns.

    After all, we’re still a free people, a force willing and able to fight for our liberties against government at every level and against an increasingly intrusive corporate-controlled society (Smartphones, Smart TV’s, etc.) that seemingly knows what you’re thinking of purchasing before you’ve even given it any thought.

    We’re living in a world that George Orwell couldn’t possibly have imagined.

    Freedom.

    It’s precious.

    Tom is our Paul Revere.

  5. Andy Andy February 20, 2022

    Who you live around has a direct impact on your level of liberty, and your overall quality of life.

    Saying, “Just don’t talk to them,” is pretty naive.

  6. Robert Milnes Robert Milnes February 20, 2022

    Andy,
    Thanks for commenting on this thread. I thought you might.
    Doug Stanhope is a comedian, so I guess that quip was worth a few guffaws.
    I have to agree with Andy on this issue.
    Anarchy now just does not work.

  7. Austin Cassidy Austin Cassidy February 21, 2022

    Robert,

    I edited your comment above, please avoid attacking or “calling out” authors and contributors to this site.

  8. Jared Jared February 21, 2022

    Andy: “Who you live around has a direct impact on your level of liberty, and your overall quality of life.”

    Living around people whose native language is Spanish (or something other than English) ensures less liberty and a lower quality of life? What is the argument here?

    You can disagree with Tom’s free immigration position while conceding that this particular objection is bad.

  9. Starchild Starchild March 11, 2022

    Most of the United States has open borders, and it seems to work quite well. This despite the often vast economic, cultural, linguistic, and ideological differences among people found in various states, counties, and cities.

    It is only at the U.S. borders that are policed and controlled, at the cost of billions of dollars stolen from taxpayers and many lives lost each year, that we constantly hear about problems.

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