English-only and official English movements

Definition: Efforts by federal and state governments, lobbyists, organizations, or private citizens to make English the “only” or “official” language for use in public or governmental situations in the United States

Significance: Although some Americans see these movements as patriotic or wellintended, other Americans perceive such efforts to be anti-immigrant or racist. These movements tend to experience their greatest popularity during times of economic hardship, massive immigration, or war. At the same time, they represent a desire by members of the English-speaking majority in the United States to create national cohesiveness under the banner of the English language.

History of English-Only Movements

Although sentiments against non-Englishspeaking residents in America can be found in the words of the English colonists and the nation’s first political leaders, the history of English-only movements in the United States can be traced back to the nineteenth century in California. The 1849 California constitution called for the publication of the future state’s laws in both English and Spanish, yet by 1855 English became the official language in the state’s schools. When the state constitution was rewritten a generation later, all governmental proceedings were ordered to be held and recorded in English only.

German immigrants, who settled in the Midwest during the late nineteenth century, spoke German in their homes, churches, and public places. In some regions, public schools taught classes in both English and German, while in other regions only private schools that were usually run by churches did so. Nativist and anti-Roman Catholic elements opposed the use of German in public places. During the late 1880’s, laws requiring instruction solely in English in both public and private schools were enacted in Illinois and Wisconsin.

As the U.S. economy expanded and immigrant workers flowed into the United States during the early years of the twentieth century, the Englishonly movement grew. Funded by businessmen who feared possible revolutionary violence among newly arrived immigrants, the movement ranged from the benign efforts of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) teaching English to workers in the evenings to the more aggressive drives undertaken by the “Americanization” campaign led by the anticommunist National Americanization Committee.

After the Spanish-American War (1898), English was made the official language of public education in the newly acquired colonies, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Attempts to prohibit the teaching of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean in private schools in California and Hawaii were voided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1926. Anti- German-language sentiment continued through World War II; in addition, legislation prohibiting public use of the Japanese language was enacted in response to public demand.

Late Twentieth Century Movements

From 1981 until 1990, more immigrants arrived in the United States than in any other ten-year period since the decade that began in 1901. Movements scapegoating immigrant groups began to experience a renaissance. One organization, called U.S. English, was founded in 1983 by Senator S. I. Hayakawa of California and Dr. John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist, environmentalist, and population-control activist. Within four years of the organization’s founding, proposals designating English as the official language of the United States were considered by forty-eight of the fifty states. Voters passed several English-only measures, and numerous legislatures followed suit.

California senator S. I. Hayakawa in 1981
California senator S. I. Hayakawa in 1981.ACanadian immigrant of Japanese heritage and a former educator, Hayakawa was one of the leading proponents of making English the official language of the United States. (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

In 1986, a memorandum written by Tanton containing derogatory remarks regarding Latinos was made public. In response, retired CBS newsman Walter Cronkite and political columnist Linda Chavez resigned from the organization’s board. That year, two other organizations, English First and the American Ethnic Coalition, were formed by Larry Pratt and Lou Zaeske, respectively. In a blow to the movement, U.S. district judge Paul Rosenblatt struck down Arizona’s Official English amendment in 1990 as unconstitutional, ruling that it violated free speech guarantees under the First Amendment. During the legislative session of the 103d Congress (1993-1995), no fewer than four bills were introduced that would have made English the official language of the United States.

As the twenty-first century began, another wave of anti-immigrant sentiment swept across the United States. Although this movement claimed to be against illegal immigration only, both documented and undocumented Spanish-speaking residents of the United States faced increased official and unofficial harassment from authorities and private citizens. Once again, there were calls to make English the official language of the United States. Laws were passed in some states forbidding the use of Spanish in the workplace and in schools, even informally. In 2007, a bill sponsored by members of both major political parties for the English Language Unity Act was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives. The language of the bill was designed to make English the official language of the United States. It was still working its way through the legislative process in late 2009.

Ron Jacobs

Further Reading

  • Crawford, James. At War With Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, 2000. Collection of essays providing a clear and lively account of language politics in the United States. Crawford discusses the history of legislation attempting to make English the official language of the United States, as well as the debate around the issue. 
  • _______, ed. Language Loyalties: A Source Book on the Official English Controversy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. This collection of readings is a reasonably balanced guide to the issues in the English-only debate. While it mostly addresses the movement to make English the official language that began during the 1980’s, the primary source documents herein are important for their content and historical value. 
  • Gonzalez, Roseann Dueñas, with Ildikó Melis, eds. Language Ideologies: Critical Perspectives on the Official English Movement. Vol. 2, History, Theory, and Policy. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. A collection of essays that addresses the history and issues involved in the debate over teaching English-only in American classrooms. The essays are written by a number of people representing different backgrounds, although the overwhelming consensus is that English-only classrooms are not beneficial to students or society. 
  • King, Robert D. “Should English Be the Law? Language Is Tearing Apart Countries Around the World, and the Proponents of ‘Official English’ May Be Ready to Add America to the List.” The Atlantic Monthly 279, no. 4 (April, 1997): 55-64. King discusses the English-only movement of the 1980’s and 1990’s and examines the possible conflicts that could arise if English were made the official language of the United States. He takes an instructive look at other nations where linguistic differences have caused conflicts that broke into war or were resolved through compromise. 
  • Ricento, Thomas, ed. An Introduction to Language Policy: Theory and Method. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. Aimed at the higher education market, this book provides the reader with the important debates in the English-only controversy. Encompassing a wide range of opinions, it is a useful sourcebook on the subject. 

See also: Americanization programs; Anglo-conformity; Anti-Chinese movement; Anti-Japanese movement; Bilingual education; Bilingual Education Act of 1968; English as a second language; Germanimmigrants; Hayakawa, S. I.; Language issues.

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