The State of Language Today

They can often be seen chatting with customers or co-workers behind glass windows as they work on others’ nails. Many of these manicurists and pedicurists are Asian, so I was surprised by the recent report that Illinois might begin offering these licensing exams in Asian languages — these exams aren’t already offered in other languages besides English?

In some cases, these exams are. For example, cosmetologists, upon request, can complete their licensing exams in Spanish, which, to some extent, seems sensible. Spanish is currently the second most widely used language both in Illinois and throughout the country. More than 1 in 10 (13%) in Illinois and across the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, use Spanish although the number increases to almost 2 in 10 (17%) in the metro Chicago area.

At the same time, this approach seems somewhat arbitrary because more people use languages other than Spanish and English. When considering all other languages including Spanish, the number increases to more than 2 in 10 in Illinois (22.6%) and across the country (21%), and it increases to almost 3 in 10 (29%) in the metro Chicago area.

A significant number of our neighbors and fellow residents, in other words, use Spanish and other languages everyday, yet many are unable to use these languages, including Spanish in some cases, in their efforts to obtain these and other licenses that can lead to employment, which can have substantial individual and social costs.

These costs can be seen in the situations facing multilingual manicurists and pedicurists. Illinois, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has the fifth highest employment level of and hourly and annual pay for these technicians, who earn an hourly mean wage of $12.84 for an annual mean wage of $26,720 with slightly higher wages in the metro Chicago area ($13.65 / hour and $28,400 / year).

In these and other ways, Illinois has had an uneasy relationship with, and sends mixed messages about, who we are and who we want to be. Although the United States has no official language, Illinois in 1923 passed one of the first language laws in the country when it designated American as its official language. While legislators, in 1969, changed it from the nationally and even internationally popular American to English, the message is nonetheless clear.

These issues, as political scientist Ronald Schmidt (2000) suggests, often arise in debates about civic and political rights, educational policies for language minority students, and English as the only official language. As such, these debates are complicated arguments about larger social issues, including the distribution of social goods, as well as social relations among individuals and groups.

Some believe that the status of English is threatened by those who use languages other than English in public places and that English Only policies are necessary for individual opportunities and social unity. Others maintain that the dominance of English is the result of unequal relations among language uses in a multilingual country and that multilingual policies are the only way to ameliorate these existing inequalities.

In part, the problem, as Schmidt explains, is that both perspectives cite data: the use of English is highly correlated with income, wealth, and occupational standing, and yet a second language is not correlated with lower income as long as it co-exists with English proficiency.

At the same time, both perspectives are limited. The assimilationist perspective of English Only misunderstands the current status of English in the United States, as immigrants since the 1960s have demonstrated the same tendency toward English monolingualism by the third generation as those since World War II. Moreover, it is based upon an incomplete and romanticized history of the United States as only a land of opportunity in ways that ignore its history of conquest and imperialism.

The pluralist perspective, while preferable, often overlooks the cultural dilemmas created by the acquisition of English, which can allow individuals to overcome a subordinate status but usually overshadows other cultural and linguistic options. Also, it is often based upon a liberal individualism that ignores the instability of multicultural communities and the challenges of cultural differences, which are rarely, if ever, choices among equally acceptable alternatives.

While both perspectives, Schmidt explains, share concerns about social identities, they disagree about the relative importance of socialization and minority rights. In fact, the United States is one of the most multilingual countries in the world, and despite the perceived threat of Spanish today, German was the most dominant non-English language until the 1950s even as English has long been the language of power throughout the country.

As a result, Illinois should formulate policies that encourage social integration and value cultural differences, particularly in situations, such as employment and education, that have a significant impact upon individuals and communities. Such policies, whether for license exams or in other areas, could reflect and respond to social reality rather than attempt to control and create it.

In some ways, it already has. For example, those who want to complete driving exams in Spanish can do so, and the Secretary of State, at his or her discretion, can offer these exams in other languages. At the same time, it needs to extend these efforts to create a consistent approach and to encourage other languages, which not only supports integration and values difference but also can bring other benefits.


Schmidt, Ronald. 2000. Language Policy and Identity Politics in the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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