English as an Official
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
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
 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 nonEuropean 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:
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
 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
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
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
Further Reading Suggestions
 James Crawford – Bilingual Education/ESL
 http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/

English as an Official Language