the english only movement

The English-Only Movement

            The “English-Only Movement” is a rather interesting, bitter, and emotional topic of debate which has drawn the attention of Americans from all walks of life for almost three decades already. Basically, the purpose of the movement is to have English formally declared as the official language of the country both in the level of the states as well as the federal level. In order for this to happen, it would necessitate amending the country’s constitution in such a way as to force all the fifty states to comply and declare English as their official language. Once English is declared the official language, all government agencies would be issuing their rules and printing their official documents in English, without any need of translating the same for the benefit of people who find difficulty in understanding the language. Education, too, would no longer be bilingual but would be solely conducted in English whether or not the pupils or students from immigrant families are able to cope. It should be noted that when the founding fathers wrote the country’s constitution, they decided against adopting an official language for fear of alienating the other ethnic groups which were then important elements of the fledgling colonial America (Bosiak).

 The debate concerning the issue started as early as 1780 when John Adams came up with a proposal of adopting English as the country’s official language. His proposal, however, was considered “undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty.” Since then, the heated debate has continued without any clear resolution on the horizon. Interestingly, the United States appears to be the only industrialized country in the world without an official language, although English is currently its “de facto language” owing to the fact that it is the language which majority of the population speak (Strictly Spanish LLC). For instance, the United Kingdom has declared English as its official language; Denmark has Danish; The Netherlands and Belgium has Dutch; Czech Republic has Czech; Russia’s official language is Russian; Greece has Greek; Austria and Germany has German as their official languages; Italy’s is Italian; and France has French as its official language (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)..

In spite of the fact that English is its de facto language, however, the United States has remained a multilingual country. As a matter of fact, the “U. S. English, Inc.” which has been campaigning for the use of English as the country’s official language has estimated that a total of “322 languages are spoken in the country, with 24 of those spoken in every state and the District of Columbia.” In California, the state with the most number of languages, 207 languages are being spoken while the state with the least number of languages – Wyoming – has 56 languages (Strictly Spanish LLC).

The language problem is undoubtedly rooted in the issue of immigration. Proponents of multilingualism maintain that since the United States is a country which has been built and is still being nourished by immigrants, having an official language would tantamount to discrimination against the non-English-speaking immigrants who are not only contributing their much-needed labor to the country’s productivity but who are also duly paying their taxes, thereby contributing their fair share in financing the country’s socio-economic programs. In this context, therefore, they claim that non-English-speaking immigrants should be accorded the same rights granted to the English-speaking population. They assert that this right against discrimination was constitutionally protected by “Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 2000 Executive Order No. 13166” which similarly provided that government agencies being maintained by federal funds should print their important documents in all languages being spoken and thus fairly understood by the people that they serve. According to them, this was emphasized by then President John F. Kennedy when he stated in 1963 that “Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races [colors, and national origins] contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial [color or national origin] discrimination” (Strictly Spanish LLC).

While the right of immigrants against discrimination is central to the argument of pro-multilingualism advocates, the same immigration issue has sparked the English-only movement. The Movement, which started during the early 1980s, actually had its first seeds in the substantial increase in the number of Asian and Latin American immigrants in the 1960s that made many Americans feel that their lifestyle was being assaulted not only by their presence and the competition that they presented for the available employment, but also by the increasing frequency and volume with which foreign languages were being spoken and heard around the country. Faced with such a situation, the disgruntled citizens found a common symbol in the English language. They rallied around it, ostensibly to protect its use as the country’s official language, in order to show their dissatisfaction with the uncertain condition which they believed was caused by the unrestricted arrival of immigrants. They started attacking efforts to revive and strengthen the different ethnic groups in the country and lambasted the government-funded bilingual programs of education as “unnecessary and expensive” (Ricento).

It was not until 1981, however, that the “English-Only Movement” took its present form – when then California Senator S. I. Hayakawa introduced in the U.S. Congress S.J. Res. 72 which proposed to amend the constitution for the purpose of declaring English as the official language of the land. Although Hayakawa’s proposal was never approved by the committee, it certainly started the movement which, until today, is clamoring for such a constitutional amendment. In fact, as a consequence of Hayakawa’s initiative, several states passed their own laws declaring English as their official language (Ricento). Today, thirty states have already passed their laws declaring English as their official language, namely: “Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming” (U.S. English, Inc.).

Senator Hayakawa also became the founder of U.S. English, Inc. in 1983. With a current nationwide membership of about 1.8 million, this organization is now working to preserve the “unifying role of the English language” in the country. The organization is convinced that declaring English as the official language of the United States would not only help non-English-speaking immigrants learn the language faster but would also allow them better opportunities for advancement once they become more proficient in reading, writing, and speaking English. It has been working with members of the United States Congress for the passage of a legislation declaring English as the official language of the United States. In 1996, its efforts resulted to the passage of “The Bill Emerson English Language Empowerment Act of 1996” in the House of Representatives with a 259-169 majority vote (U.S. English, Inc.). However, the bill was not acted on by the Senate before the session went on recess because President Bill Clinton threatened to veto the bill (Crawford). Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, however revived the issue with H.R. 997, otherwise known as the “English Unity Act of 2007 (U.S. English, Inc.).

 A couple of factors contributed to the relative success of the movement during the 1980s. First, the Republican Party captured the White House when Ronald Regan became president of the country. The party adopted such themes as the “renewed commitment to ‘American’ values,” and the rejuvenation of the country after the paralyzing effects of the “Vietnam syndrome.” Then, reminiscent of the colonial era as well as the mid and late nineteenth century to the early part of the twentieth century when European immigration went unchecked, resulting to a huge wave of immigrants, the sentiment of many Americans once again favored restricting the use of languages other than English for the purpose of reasserting the influence of those groups holding the reins of power (Ricento).

            In California, Proposition 227 was approved by a 61% vote on June 2, 1998. This law provided for the adoption of an “English-only ideology on the public schools” which effectively prohibited bilingual education in the state.  Proponents of Proposition 227 claimed that bilingual education threatened unity and harmony in the American culture and portrayed educators who advocated bilingualism as “ethnic militants” who were out to prevent minority students from learning the English language. Proposition 227 even went as far as providing for the liability of teachers and other school officials who fail to enforce its provisions (Mora).

            Some observers claim that the advocates of the English-only movement are: those citizens who would like to save our common language; bigots or racists who want to roll back the gains made by minority groups and civil rights activists; conservative politicians who hope “to impose a sense of national unity and civic responsibility;” liberals who are afraid that bilingualism or multilingualism would prevent immigrant assimilation; and Americans who are “threatened by diversity” (The English Only Movement).

An objective analysis of the arguments in favor and against the adoption of English as the official language of the country would lead a neutral observer to conclude that it would be more beneficial for the United States not to have an official language. Being a country of immigrants, it would best serve the country and its people if no official language is declared. This would mean, for instance, that ballots would still be printed in translated forms so that voters could fully grasp what issues confront them or better understand the electoral process. Any election would be more representative and meaningful if voters know exactly what they are supposed to do. Shown below is an example of a ballot with translation to Farsi, a widely spoken language among the Persians. Ballots such as the one below enable the voter to exercise his or her right properly since he or she is able to understand what issues are presented for his or her approval or what information are needed to be digested before an intelligent vote could be cast. If English is declared as the official language, ballots would no longer be translated. In such a situation, how will non-English-speaking voters exercise their right to vote properly and meaningfully?

Having no official language would also mean that the government agencies would continue with the practice of publishing their rules, regulations, and official documents in as many languages as necessary in order to assure that every citizen of the country fully comprehends the provisions of the law and would therefore be in the best position to exercise their rights and enjoy the privileges that their legal status affords them. This is only proper and ethical considering the fact that every productive and tax-paying citizen, whether English-speaking or not, should be given equal treatment under the law. How can an immigrant from Asia, for instance, who speaks little English, could understand his or her rights under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and become a good citizen of the country?

            Finally, having no official language would ensure that children of immigrant families would continue attending bilingual classes which has been shown to be very effective for non-English-speaking students. While it is true that bilingual education is more expensive, the added cost should be seen as a necessary cost in ensuring that proper and effective education is being afforded the children of immigrant families – and that the time and efforts they spend in school are not wasted.

Annotated Bibliography

Bosiak, Patricia. “The English Only Movement.”

            The author describes the English-only movement as an organized effort the purpose of

which is to have English formally declared as the official language of the country both

 in the level of the states as well as the federal level. Bosiak explained that the

 movement has started a bitter debate which effectively polarized Americans. She

 cited the fact that the founding fathers avoided the issue of declaring an official

 language when the U.S. constitution was written because they were afraid that it

 would result to a divided America.

Crawford, Janes. “Anatomy of the English-Only Movement.”


            Crawford presents a good anatomy of the English-only movement. He explains that

            while the movement has already evolved into a mainstream phenomenon when it was

            able to win many supporters from the cross-section of the American society, it does

            not make it a rational idea.

Mora, Jill Kerper. “Bilingual Educators are Not the Enemy.” November 24, 2006.

   The author describes

            California’s Proposition 227 which was approved on June 2, 1998. She maintains that

            it only won in the balloting because of the “negative stereotypes” employed by its

            proponents during the campaigning. The author also criticizes the provision which

            makes educators who fail to implement its “English-only provision” liable for court


Ricento, Thomas. “A Brief History of Language Restrictionism in the United States.”

1995. Thomas

Ricento presents a brief history of the movement which, according to him, started

with Senator Hayakawa’s constitutional amendment in 1981. He also cites the factors

responsible for the rise of the pro-English language sentiment during the 1980s. He

explains that the real purpose behind the movement is to limit the sphere of influence

of the non-English languages in the country.

Strictly Spanish LLC. “The Official Language of the United States and its impact on the

            Translation Industry.” 2007. The

            site explains that the country “has never declared an official language.” It also

            maintains that the United States has always been and will always be a multilingual

            country where more than 300 languages are spoken. Also included are the reasons

            why U.S. companies and employers prefer multilingualism.

U.S. English, Inc. “Making English the official language.” January 7, 2008.

   This is the official site of the English-Only

Movement. It details the history of the movement and cites the gains made by the

movement, including the bills pending in the U.S. Congress. It also lists the thirty

states which have already adopted their own English-only laws, its current

membership, and the rationale behind the movement.

Works Cited

Bosiak, Patricia. “The English Only Movement.” January 7, 2008.

Crawford, Janes. “Anatomy of the English-Only Movement.” January 7, 2008.


Mora, Jill Kerper. “Bilingual Educators are Not the Enemy.” November 24, 2006.

            January 7, 2008. <>

Ricento, Thomas. “A Brief History of Language Restrictionism in the United States.”

1995.  January 7, 2008. <>

Strictly Spanish LLC. “The Official Language of the United States and its impact on the

            Translation Industry.” 2007. January 7, 2008.


The English Only Movement. January 7, 2008.


U.S. English, Inc. “Making English the official language.” January 7, 2008. January 7, 2008.


Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “List of official languages.” January 7,. 2008.



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