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In this piece, I tackle a current subject of popular controversy
whether growing multilingualism in the United States imperils the future of
American democracy. I offer a positive theory, centered on the value of
democratic participation, of how a society like the United States should
approach the multilingualism of its population. I conclude that embracing
bilingualism in individuals and multilingualism in society is more likely to
make linguistic pluralism socially functional and to sustain the vitality of
public and social institutions than demanding public monolingualism. I
begin by demonstrating that current approaches to language diversity in
constitutional democracies, including our own, are largely remedial in na
ture. They focus either on ensuring the survival of particular minority
groups historically present and marginalized in a given nation-state, or on
helping immigrants overcome language barriers as they assimilate into the
dominant language of the society in question. On its own, this remedial
conception cannot ensure that linguistic diversity complements, rather than
undermines, democratic institutions, because it does not account for the
variety of linguistic interests present in a multiethnic society. I then ad
dress this limitation by offering an alternative, participatory theory of lan
guage difference. I base my conception of participation on principles of
decentralized decisionmaking. This focus requires considering how to ex
pand the individual's associative options and improve access to the mid
level social institutions where we live out most of our lives, such as the
workplace and the public schools. In accommodating speakers of multiple
languages in a given institution, we should focus on promoting social in
vestment by individuals and groups, as well as preserving individual con
trol over matters of deeply personal concern, rather than on the survival of
particular languages or cultures. In developing this framework, I draw
from the experiences of other multilingual societies and legal systems, but I
present the United States as a case study to explain what a participatory
approach would look like in practice. I focus on the major sites of lan
guage conflict in the United States- the political arena, the debate over
official English, the workplace, and the public schools-and argue that a
multilingual understanding of these sites and the legal rules that structure
them best promotes participation.

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multilingualism, democracy