Although language diversity is not a new phenomenon in the United States, understanding contemporary attitudes toward language diversity can be a more complex undertaking than is commonly assumed. This entry describes selected factors related to people’s attitudes toward language diversity and explores implications of these factors for understanding attitudes toward language diversity in education. Attitudes represent people’s internal thoughts, feelings, and behavioral tendencies in various contexts. Attitudes can predispose people to certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and they can also be an outcome.
For example, those with positive attitudes toward language diversity may be attracted to live in linguistically and culturally diverse settings, even though they themselves may be monolingual or struggling to become multilingual. Sometimes people develop positive attitudes toward language diversity in the course of fitting into a new community characterized by two or more languages. But a changing community, culturally and linguistically, could also have the opposite effect: negative attitudes toward those who are considered atypical.
When that happens, those with negative attitudes toward the shift may move away; those who embrace it may choose to stay and be transformed by the changing environment. An oft-quoted aphorism, attributed to linguists Joshua A. Fishman and Max Weinreich, states that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Tucker Childs points out that ultimately all languages are dialects. History and politics often decide which dialect will rise to a level warranting the term language.
Those factors also decide people’s attitudes toward languages, their own and those of others. One’s own language may be understood to be of higher or lower status than the languages of others, whether to oneself or another or both. This differential may influence attitudes toward language diversity. The more powerful or historically significant the group, the more likely their dialect will be considered a language.
From the perspective of the more or less powerful, or both, the language of the less powerful may not be a language at all, but a lower-status dialect. Despite the notion that all languages are dialects, people’s attitudes toward other languages may result in giving one language a greater value and higher status than another.
Attitudes toward language diversity can be proxies for attitudes about other people, the people who speak those languages that are regarded negatively. Factors such as the nation the speakers came from, the sociopolitical relationships between the sending nation and the receiving nation, the reasons for emigration, the length of stay in the receiving nation, and the likelihood of returning to the sending nation influence people’s attitudes toward language diversity.
These factors shape the social order among diverse languages in contact and the ways in which people who already live in the receiving nation behave toward diverse languages, including their expectations that newcomers will learn a dominant language. Those who ascribe to a nationalistic worldview (e.g., the long-standing notion of the United States as melting pot) whereby involuntary immigrants have historically shed their heritage to take on the identity of their new homeland may feel threatened by a voluntary influx of transnational speakers of other languages who do maintain their heritage language and culture.
People with such nationalistic views may behave negatively toward the languages of the newcomers and to the newcomers themselves. Conversely, for those who live a comfortable, transnational existence, language diversity may elicit positive attitudes: language diversity is a natural part of life that is readily negotiable for people who may already be conversant in more than one language.