The “English-only” movement (also known as the “Official English” movement) is a network of activists organized around the legislative goals of passing a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the United States and restricting the use of languages other than English for official purposes. These would include written usage in ballots, signage, drivers’ licensing exams, public safety pamphlets, and other government documents, as well as oral usages such as voting assistance, provision of social services (e.g., health care or job training), and translation assistance for crime victims, witnesses, or defendants. Some cities have passed English-only laws restricting the use of other languages on private business signs. A major area of debate has been language policies around public education, particularly for immigrant children. Correspondingly, schooling has been a major focus of the movement’s campaign, and bilingual education advocates are among its staunchest opponents.
Throughout U.S. history, public enthusiasm for declaring English the (exclusive) official language has waxed and waned, largely as a reaction to the ebb and flow of immigrants from non-English-speaking countries. In earlier decades, such immigrants were mainly from Europe and China. Aggressive assimilation policies targeting Native Americans (e.g., via the forcible removal of Indian children to English-medium boarding schools) and anti-German sentiment surrounding World War I also prompted several states to pass legislation restricting the use of languages other than English in public schools.
More recently, immigration from Latin America, particularly Mexico, has spurred the English-only movement to aggressive action on various fronts. Spearheading this movement has been California businessman Ron Unz, whose “English for the Children” initiative led to the passage of California’s Proposition 227 in 1998. Though it did not outlaw bilingual education outright, Proposition 227 severely restricted the educational options available to students learning English, and established various bureaucratic hurdles to the provision of educational services in other languages.
To date, roughly half of the fifty states have passed English-only laws; court challenges to these measures are ongoing in some states. Not surprisingly, the English-only movement has been most active in states with a large proportion of speakers of other languages, such as California, Florida, Nebraska, Colorado, Hawaii, and Massachusetts. On the other hand, some states with large immigrant populations (e.g., Texas) have resisted such legislation, while a few (notably New Mexico) have passed nonbinding “English plus” measures in support of multilingualism.
Although critics have charged that the English-only movement is fueled by nativist, anti-immigrant, or racist sentiments, and tenuous links have been drawn to White supremacist organizations, bilingual education advocate James Crawford argues that such links are less significant than is often believed. Rather, the movement has gained widespread public support (even among some Hispanics) by stressing the right of all immigrants, especially children, to have access to the English language. They argue that the provision of services in other languages impedes immigrants’ acquisition of English, and that bilingual education, while arguably necessary for some children, should be of short duration and focused on the transition to English-medium education.
Opponents argue that such policies fly in the face of most research, which indicates that well implemented, long-term bilingual education programs are more effective at promoting the acquisition of English than are transitional bilingual education or “sink or swim” English immersion programs. Organizations dedicated to the defense of civil liberties and minority rights have also argued that laws restricting language use are inconsistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, as well as the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. Nevertheless, English-only advocates have, for the most part, been more effective at disseminating their views among a public that is generally unfamiliar with research on second language acquisition, and tends to view monolingualism as the norm in human societies.
- Baron, D. (1992). The English-only question: An official language for Americans? Hartford, CT: Yale University Press.
- Crawford, J. (2000). At war with diversity: U.S. language policy in an age of anxiety. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
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