English as an official language
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English as an Official Language. Do We Need a Constitutional Amendment Declaring English as the Official Language of the U.S.?. Context. Since the early history of the United States, leaders and citizens have debated whether English should be declared the official language of the U.S.

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English as an Official Language

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English as an Official Language

Do We Need a Constitutional Amendment Declaring English as the Official Language of the U.S.?


  • Since the early history of the United States, leaders and citizens have debated whether English should be declared the official language of the U.S.

  • Founding leaders decided not to legally address the issue.

  • The debate continues in contemporary society.

What does it mean for a country to have an official language?

  • At the most basic level, it dictates that all official government business must be conducted in the designated language.

What is the current legal status of the English language in the U.S.?

  • Despite popular belief, the U.S. government has not declared an official language on a national level.

  • Although, English is considered the de facto common national language.

  • There are a few federal laws requiring the use of English for special, limited purposes: air traffic control, product labels, warnings, official notices, service on federal juries, and the naturalization of immigrants.

  • Debate among pundits highlight the various contradictions in the government’s implicit stance toward English. Some claim a national language policy exists, albeit implicit and fragmented.

What is picture of linguistic diversity in the U.S.?

  • The majority of U.S. inhabitants speak English, but there are hundreds of languages spoken in the U.S.

  • Over 30 languages have more than a thousand speakers each.

  • In New Mexico, nearly half its population speaks a non-English language, but the majority of these speakers also speak English.

  • 1 out of 7 people speaks a language other than English at home or lives with family members who do. Almost 3 out of 5 of these individuals are American born.

What is the historical context surrounding the national debate?

  • After the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson proposed moving 30,000 Americans to Louisiana to prevent the continued use and spread of French in the region.

  • In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision protecting foreign language instruction in schools, opinioned that it was desirable for English to become the national language.

  • The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the ethnic pride movements of the 1960s and 1970s advanced protection of civil rights based on race, religion, gender, and national origin, but the 1980s presented a backlash against these earlier gains.

  • In 1981, Samuel Hayawaka, then senator of California, proposed a constitutional amendment called the English Language Amendment (ELA), claiming it would both give English primacy and also protect English from the “onslaught” of non-European languages entering U.S. shores. It did not pass.

  • In 1986, the U.S. Senate held hearings to debate whether or not the U.S. should amend the constitution and declare English as the official language.

  • The amendment never made it out of the hearings, but since 1986, similar amendments have been introduced each year without passage.

What is the historical context surrounding the debates within states?

  • As of the summer of 2000, 23 states have declared English to be their official language:

  • AL, AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, FL, GA, IL, IN, KY, LA, MS, MN, NE, NH, NC, ND, SC, SD, TN, VA, and WY

  • The language legislation passed in Alabama and Alaska are being contested in court.

  • Arizona’s state constitutional amendment was overturned.

  • As of 2001, 20 states have official English language legislation in effect.

  • Some states merely give English the same honorary status as a state bird or state flower.

  • Other states, such as California have passed legislation requiring only English to be used in such public activities as education, voting, legal, and government services.

  • Conversely, through English Plus legislation, some cities and states have recognized other languages in addition to English. New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington State are examples.

Has there been legislation countering the English Language Amendment?

  • Yes, the English Plus movement emerged in opposition to the ELA.

  • It seeks to respect the language rights of non-English speaking people and to support linguistic diversity as a valuable national resource.

  • The Cultural Rights Amendment (CRA) has also opposed the ELA by seeking to amend the constitution to bar discrimination on the basis of minority language and culture just as discrimination on the basis of national origin is also prohibited.

What is Language Planning?

  • It is a plan devised by governments to implement policies or laws that deal with language issues.

  • Policies range from encouraging citizens to learn the languages of other countries to declaring official language(s).

Why do nations declare official languages?

  • Each country be they monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual face their own unique linguistic challenges. Monolingualism is extremely rare.

  • Although Korea is considered monolingual, its government encourages its inhabitants to learn regional and world languages in order to become more competitive in the international market.

  • Many nations have numerous languages spoken within their borders, necessitating the declaration of an official language to ease government bureaucracy and management.

  • Countries like Ireland declare their indigenous language(s) as official as means to preserve their linguistic heritage.

  • A developing country might adopt English as its official language in order to participate in the global economy.

Who Are the Proponents of English as an Official Language?

  • Although many bigoted groups are at the forefront of an English Language Amendment, many “well-intended” Americans, perhaps the majority, support such legislation, as evidenced by massive public support of draconian language policies in California and Arizona.

Proponents of English as an Official Language Argue:

  • It will force immigrants to learn English. Some people misguidedly believe that immigrants do not make progress in learning English perhaps because there is usually a gradual flow of immigrants to one area. As one group masters English, another arrives and begins to learn it.

  • Proponents claim it’s a symbolic act. One powerful lobbying group in favor of English as an official language is U.S. English, Inc. On their official website, they have posted the quote, “English is the ‘language of liberty’ for nations emerging from years of cultural oppression.”

  • Proponents connect English with national identity and national pride.

Opponents of English as an Official Language Argue:

  • Most immigrants in the U.S. know that learning English is important and that a law will not quicken their acquisition of English.

  • As a law it will suggest to newcomers that the U.S. is intolerant of difference.

  • It will imply that other languages do not deserve a noteworthy place in our history. Many languages have played a critical role in U.S. history and development – thousands of languages spoken by indigenous populations and the languages spoken by the multitude of immigrants.

Opponents of English as an Official Language Argue:

  • Opponents reject it as a symbolic act because of its political and social consequences. Politically, it might lead to laws abolishing bilingual ballots, preventing some citizens from participating in the political process, or to laws abolishing public funds for printing materials in non-English languages. This can cause a safety hazard in some situations.

  • Socially, it degrades all non-English languages, and for some Americans, it might justify existing feelings of prejudice for non-native speakers of English and other languages.

Opponents of English as an Official Language Argue:

  • It will impede the already poorly received minority maintenance language programs.

  • Some opponents believe English-only legislation is aimed at Hispanics, who are stereotyped as reluctant to assimilate. Recent studies show that Spanish speakers rapidly adopt English.

  • Some research shows that large numbers of Hispanics who have become monolingual English speakers do not receive the ostensible rewards of assimilation. Competence in English has not led to better job opportunities or higher salaries.

Racial and Ethnic Discrimination?

  • Based on this research, one can conclude that existing discrimination goes beyond the mere issue of language and may act as a cover for acts of racial and ethnic discrimination.

In Conclusion

  • If the English Language Amendment passes we can not fully predict its ramifications.

  • It might merely remain symbolic with little impact on bilingual education or changes in ballots and voting procedures published in non-English languages.

  • However, hard versions might lead to such extreme measures as prohibitions against the public use of non-English languages and other related discriminatory, divisive practices.

Arizona’s English Only Legislation

  • Proposition 203: English Language Education for Children in Public Schools

  • Passed in November 2000

  • Requires that all public school instruction be conducted in English. Children not fluent in English shall normally be placed in an intensive one-year English immersion program to teach them the language as quickly as possible while also learning academic subjects. Parents may request a waiver of these requirements for children who already know English, are ten years or older, or have special needs best suited to a different educational approach. Normal foreign language programs are completely unaffected. Enforcement lawsuits by parents and guardians are permitted.

Arizona’s Proposition 203

  • Modeled after similar legislation, Proposition 227, passed in California in June 1998.

  • Critics claim that in the interpretation of California’s amendment, the right of parents to request bilingual education for their children was upheld.

  • Whereas in Arizona’s Proposition 203, it provides that school officials “may reject waiver requests without explanation or legal consequence.”

Further Reading Suggestions

James Crawford – Bilingual Education/ESL


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