The goal of the English-only movement is to make English the official language of the United States and to restrict the use of non-English languages in schools and for government services, such as interpreters and voting materials. The movement is based on the belief that encroachment on English by minority languages has reached such a level that English is in danger of losing its primacy as the nation’s dominant language. A widespread campaign to make English the official language and to restrict the use of minority languages began in 1983, with the founding of US English by John Tanton and the late U.S. Senator S. I. Hayakawa (R-CA).
Two years prior, Senator Hayakawa had proposed an English Language Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Hayakawa gave three primary reasons for why English needed to be an official rather than a de facto national language: (1) English is a common language that can unify people, and separate languages can fracture and fragment a society. (2) All immigrants who come to live in the United States should learn English. (3) Immigrants can fully participate in democracy only if they learn English.
Although Hayakawa’s amendment proposal failed, the assertions he made about the unifying power of a common language resonated with many Americans who saw the provision of bilingual schooling for immigrant children and bilingual voting ballots for naturalized citizens as contradictory to the requirements for citizenship: ability to read, write, and speak English. Hayakawa’s message also resonated with English speakers who were concerned with the burgeoning language and ethnic diversity in the United States. Dr. John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist, founder and head of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), teamed up with Senator Hayakawa to form US English, mainly as a way to expand his efforts to restrict immigration, particularly among Latinos/as, whom he believed were not only unwilling to learn English but also reproducing with such speed and numbers that they threatened the ability of white people to maintain their dominance.
In his work with FAIR, Tanton financed negative propaganda about immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants, whom he described as having low educability and little interest in civic affairs. He also advocated policies of eugenic sterilization for immigrant groups. Tanton and his connection to FAIR became a liability for US English, and he was forced to step down after the executive director of US English, Linda Chavez, when learning of his anti-Hispanic and anti-Catholic views, resigned in protest. At that time, US English claimbed to have approximately 400,000 dues-paying members, but its membership climbed to 1.8 million by 2007. The organization added the US English Foundation to disseminate information on English teaching methods, develop English instructional materials, and promote opportunities for people living in the United States to learn English. Today, US English lists Senator Hayakawa as the sole founder of US English, omitting any mention of Tanton or connections to FAIR. Parenthetically, Tanton later founded a competing English-only organization, initially called English Language Advocates, and now known as ProEnglish. US English is careful not to use language that could be construed as racist toward any particular minority group. However, the organization continues to use quotes from conservative and neo-conservative supporters that capture the group’s belief that English is a unifying language and that U.S. nationhood depends on having a common language.
Arguments for English as the Official Language
Motivating the campaign to make English the official language of the United States are two types of fear: (1) Some suggest that English is under siege and in jeopardy of losing its place of dominance, and (2) others suggest that bilingualism, biliteracy, bilingual communities, and any educational approach promoting the acquisition and use of languages other than English promote ethnic hostility and divisiveness. To overcome these fears, proponents of English-only argue that English must become the official, common language of the nation so that Americans of diverse backgrounds can communicate with one another and, in this manner, assimilate into U.S. society (an appeal to those who fear that the English language will be replaced by Spanish). A second argument is that, because new immigrants, as opposed to early 20th-century immigrants, refuse to learn English, there must be a concerted effort to eliminate government-sponsored bilingual education, which encourages immigrants not to learn English (an appeal to white Europeans whose immigrant ancestors supposedly assimilated quickly). Third, all immigrants should be taught English only through intense immersion in the language, where they are forced to use it for communication (an appeal to conservatives who fear the spread of bilingualism and bilingual communities). Fourth, ethnic politicians promote bilingualism and biliteracy for selfish ends: to provide jobs for constituents and to keep immigrants dependent by encouraging them to keep their native language and not learn (an appeal to those who fear the growing populations of Latinos/as across the United States). Finally, proponents insist that language diversity always leads to group conflicts and competition over goods and services, to ethnic hostility, and to political separatism (an appeal to both sets of fears).
US English presents these arguments with no reference to evidence or research, which is understandable since studies consistently disprove their claims. It is clear, for example, that the overwhelming majority of immigrants, both new and old, shift to English-only within three generations, and many lose their native language abilities by the second generation. Research shows that the idea that “new” immigrants, especially Latinos/as, refuse to learn English is simply not the case. What is true, however, is that many of those who are supportive of English-only proposals are also anti-immigration, and particularly, anti-Mexican.
Accordingly, the main objectives of US English and the English-only movement are to adopt a constitutional law establishing English as the official language of the United States; repeal laws mandating multilingual ballots and voting materials; restrict federal funding of bilingual education, and wherever possible, encourage English-only immersion education; and strengthen the enforcement of English language oral and written requirements for naturalization.
Support for the English-Only Movement
Across the nation, 60 to 90 percent of Americans answer “Yes” to the simple question, “Should English be the official language?” Latinos/as are the only group of Americans to consistently answer “No.” However, when Americans are asked whether the government should restrict the use of languages other than English or terminate bilingual services for people who need them, support declines significantly for all demographic categories—age, ethnicity, sex, income, education level, and political affiliation. This is an important pattern because it shows that while non-Latino/a Americans tend to favor some kind of official language policy, when it comes to enforcing English-only policies through restrictions on minority language use, few seem willing to support an enforcement measure. Accordingly, the English-only movement has yet to garner enough votes in Congress to support a constitutional law, mainly because most Americans do not support enforcement efforts, which are in conflict with First Amendment rights concerning freedom of speech.
As of 2007, 30 states had passed a law declaring English the official language. However, voters in only three states had passed anti-bilingual education laws to restrict the use of non-English languages for academic instruction and to enforce a strict English-only mandate for public schools.
Because the English-only movement is tied to the national concern over immigration, especially what to do about the burgeoning numbers of undocumented workers and families from Mexico and Central America, and because US English portrays these same groups of immigrants as reticent English learners who choose not to assimilate, it is likely that more states will make English official. It remains to be seen, however, whether Americans nationwide will favor restrictions on non-English language use. The United
States is not, and has never been, a country with one language. While English is undeniably the dominant language of the United States, it is not in any danger of being overtaken by other languages. Moreover, many Americans are critical of past restrictions on the use of Native American languages and other non-English languages in school and in the workplace and may be reluctant to place limitations now on the use of languages other than English for legal, political, and educational purposes.
- Crawford, James. 1996. “Anatomy of the English-Only Movement.” Paper presented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, March 21. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.languagepolicy.net/excerpts/anatomy.html).
- Crawford, James. 2004. Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom. 5th ed. Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services.
- Faltis, Christian and Cathy Coulter. 2004. “Bilinguaphobia in the New Millennium.” Pp. 211-34 in Marketing Fear in America’s Public Schools, edited by L. Poyner and P. M. Wolfe. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Lakshmi, Rama. 2006. “House Panel Examines the Future of English.” Washington Post, July 27. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/26/AR2006072601375.html).
- May, Stephen. 2001. Language and Minority Rights: Ethnicity, Nationalism and the Politics of Language. New York: Longman.
- Tanton, John. 1986. Unpublished memorandum for WITAN IV attendees, October 10, 1986. Excerpted in James Crawford’s “Anatomy of the English-Only Movement,” 1996.
- US English, Inc. https://www.usenglish.org/
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