Melinda Fillmore



‘Declaring English the official language means that official government business at all levels must be conducted solely in English. This includes all public documents, records, legislation and regulations, as well as hearings, official ceremonies and public meetings’.  (U.S. English 2000).

The United States of America presently does not have an ‘official language’.  The Constitution never mentions the subject, perhaps assuming it to be obvious, or else irrelevant.  However, in 1921 Nebraska policymakers amended its state constitution declaring English ‘the official language of the State’ as in shown in (1):

        (1)   Section 27 – English Language to be Official

The English language is hereby declared to be the official language of this State, and all official proceedings, records and publications shall be in such language, and the common school branches shall be taught in said language in public, private, denominational and parochial schools (Article 1, Section 27).


Encouraged by this new language policy, Illinois passed an amendment claiming ‘American’, then later ‘English’ as the state’s official language in 1923.  And Virginia in 1981 similarly followed suit. (See Dicker 2000:50).  Presently 26 states have passed some form of Official English laws.

On a national level, however, Official English policies have not had much success[i].  One bill did manage to come to a vote in the House of Representatives in 1996.  H. R. 123, ‘The Bill Emerson English Language Empowerment Act of 1996’ declared English as the language of “official government activities’.  This term is defined in (2):

        (2)   Sec. 163. Official Federal Government activities in English

                (a) CONDUCT OF BUSINESS- Representatives of the Federal Government shall conduct its official business in English.

(b) DENIAL OF SERVICES- No person shall be denied services, assistance, or facilities, directly or indirectly provided by the Federal Government solely because the person communicates in English.

(c) ENTITLEMENT- Every person in the United States is entitled--

(1) to communicate with representatives of the Federal Government in English;

(2) to receive information from or contribute information to the Federal Government in English; and

(3) to be informed of or be subject to official orders in English.

H.R. 123 was passed in the House of Represented and moved on to a disinterested Senate.  Although the bill never even came to a vote in that body, it attracted significant attention by enlisting high-profile supporters Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.  (50)


1. Official English Question. Despite engaging support for an ‘Official English’ law, many people believe that such regulation would have a devastating effect on those Americans still struggling to grasp the language.  They believe denying governmental assistance to immigrants in their mother tongue would ostracize and hinder their ability to progress in the United States.

The controversy surrounding this decision has been gaining momentum being pushed along by two conflicting bodies: citizens’ action group U.S. English, Inc. promoting Official English (or ‘English Only’) policy and the informally structured English Plus movement which discourages official declaration of a language in the United States.   It is important to analyze the underlying positions of both groups, in order to come to a well-informed conclusion harmonious with the morality and ethics our Founding Fathers intended to preserve.


2.  One nation, Indivisible:  Official English.  Mauro Mujica, Chairman of U.S. English, Inc. immigrated to the United States from Chile in 1965. ‘English was not my first language’, he says, ‘but I am perfectly bilingual today. Learning English was never an option. It was required for success’. 

                When asked why he chose to head the nation’s largest ‘English Only’ action group, Mujica responds, ‘Because English is under assault in our schools, in our courts and by bureaucrats and self-appointed leaders for immigrant groups. The whole notion of a melting pot society is threatened if new immigrants aren't encouraged to adopt the common language of this country’.  (See U.S.English 2000).  Many share Mujica’s dedication to preserving the unifying role of English in the United States.


2.1  Unity with Official English.  ‘With all the divisive forces tearing at our country, we need the glue of language to help hold us together,’ said Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R).  (See Wood 1995:4).    Many Americans agree as well, that if a country is to function as a unified body, it must communicate in one consistent, accepted language.  They feel that the use of English is fundamental for immigrants and their children to participate fully in American society.  Christopher Cox (1996) explained that ‘English, our common language, provides a shared foundation that has allowed people from every corner of the world to come together to build the American nations’.  It is the tie that has allowed African Americans, Irish Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans to live together in peace as in no other nation on earth.  (See Cox 1996:13). 

                Looking no further than to its northern neighbor, the United States can learn valuable lessons about the importance of linguistic unity.  After the French settlement of Quebec, Canada chose to accept both English and French as its official languages.  For years it has been struggling to foster unity through multilingualism, but even today the French language is a wedge driving Quebecois government from integrating itself into a unified Canadian nation.   Twice in recent years, Quebecois have demanded the right to vote on secession, and the votes have only narrowly managed to hold off on Quebec’s independence.  Another vote will most likely take place soon.  (See Cox 1996:13).  In the case of Canada, official bilingualism widens a gaping cultural and communal chasm, which weakens the nation as a whole.

                The United States of America is a melting pot for people of all kinds from all corners of the world.  The genius of the Founding Fathers was to welcome this diversity—it is what makes American great. ‘A common language has been the glue binding this diversity into unity’, says BYU communications professor John Hughes (1996).  ‘[Official English] is a law to ensure the nonerosion of English as the common tongue’ and the language of opportunity.  (See Hughes 1996:19).


2.2  A Melting Pot, Yes. A Tower of Babel, No’: Socio-economics of Official English.  Saul Bellow, a Nobel prize-winning author, expressed his opinion of linguistic diversity comparing the idealistic American melting pot to a confounded, crumbling tower of Babel.  A nation as diversified as the United States faces challenges providing economic opportunities for all its inhabitants to contribute, progress, and establish productive lives. 

The Bill H. R. 123 recognizes this fact in Section 101 as shown in (3):

(3)     The Congress finds and declares the following: …

5.     English has historically been the common language and the language of opportunity in the United States.

6.     The purpose of this title is to help immigrants better assimilate and take full advantage of economic and occupational opportunities in the United States.

7.     By learning the English language, immigrants will be empowered with the language skills and literacy necessary to become responsible citizens and productive workers in the United States.

8.     The use of a single common language in conducting official business of the Federal Government will promote efficiency and fairness to all people.


This brings out some very important points.  English is the language of opportunity in the United States.  The bill intends to help immigrants assimilate and become responsible, productive workers.  And Official English would promote efficiency.  Shortly thereafter, the bill also promises that monetary savings from the enactment of this title will be used for teaching English to immigrants.  This Bill was clearly designed to enforce and promote immigrant-oriented assistance on a national level.

Emphasizing the economic importance of English, educator and immigrant Fernando de la Peña compared language to currency.  They both are common to us all and serve as the means by which we share information and goods.  People who have neither language skills nor money are at a disadvantage.  ‘Most important, a knowledge of English is number one key to economic well-being’.  (Peña 1991:34).  Acquiring English seems fundamental—and the sooner the better.

Participation in American society depends greatly on one’s ability to comprehend issues and make his/her opinions known.  John Hughes (1996) believes that every immigrant should prove proficiency in order to gain naturalization as a U.S. citizen.  This proficiency shows a person’s capability to analyze platforms of candidates for election, cast ballots, and exercise his/her rights as a citizen.  (Hughes 1996:19).  A multilingual government sends the message that English is not necessary to receive accommodations with education systems, government, welfare, and public agencies like motorized vehicles.  (Wood 1995:4).  Is this the message America wishes to spread?  Or will these policies empower immigrants ‘with the language skills and literacy necessary to become responsible citizens and productive workers in the United States’?  (See H. R. 123).


2.3  Deprive a child…It’s called Bilingualism’.  The issue of education naturally follows a discussion of English language skills and literacy.  Supporters of Official English contend strongly against bilingual education in its present state.  A 1995 U.S. English commercial stated the following (4): 

        (4)   ‘Deprive a child of an education.  Handicap a young life outside the classroom.  Restrict social mobility.  If it came at the hand of a parent it would be called child abuse.  At the hand of our schools … it’s called bilingual education’.  (U.S. English 1998:25).


                To define the term, bilingual education is ‘intended to be a way of getting non-English speaking students to learn English gradually while receiving instruction in other subjects in their native language’.  (Peña 1991:79).  The argument, however, is exactly how gradually English- learning should proceed, and what methods should be used to merge students into mainstream classrooms.  Unfortunately, due this discrepancy, bilingual education often yields unsatisfactory results.  Virginia school official Dr. Esther Eisenhower observed:  ‘The biggest problem so far is that [bilingual education] perpetuates a system where some very mediocre teachers, using mediocre materials and curricula, are teaching classes and getting poor results’.  (See Peña 1991:84). 

                The solution?  The U.S. English Foundation, a nonpartisan education partner of U.S. English, Inc., asserts that English should be learned as quickly as possible and with English-speaking peers.  Recognizing that English-learners require some special assistance, U.S. English believes that this assistance should be ‘short-term and transitional’.  (See U.S. English:2000).  

                Not only are English-Only supporters concerned about quality of education, but they also seek to eliminate radical control of political bureaucracies and exorbitant government spending on inefficient educational programs.  Journalist Jorge Amselle describes the urgency of reform in (5):

(5) ‘What these lawmakers don't realize is that reforming bilingual education is more important than passing symbolic official English legislation. More than 1 million students are enrolled in programs that promote their native language at the expense of helping them learn English. The costs of these programs are astronomical estimates of federal, state, and local spending on native language programs run from $5 billion to $12 billion. And many parents don't want their children in these programs at all’.  (See Amselle 1995:22).


Congressional advocates are hesitant to upset bilingual laws since these statutes make up integral parts of current national language policy.  However, this is not acceptable to extreme English-Only lobbyists who want to do away with bilingual education altogether.  If we pass an official English bill and don't ban bilingual education,’ commented Jim Boulet, English First executive director, ‘we will have failed’.  (See D'Agostino 1999:18).


3.  Liberty and Justice for all:  English-Plus.  On the other hand, English Plus supporters spread the idea that language-use in government should definitely not be limited to English. To assist the already-disadvantaged immigrant progress in society and to utilize his linguistic abilities, American needs to change its perspective.  ‘Instead of focusing on immigrants' disabilities in English’, says U.S. English opponent James Crawford,  ‘why not encourage them to maintain their abilities in other tongues while they learn English? Why not exploit the valuable resources they are contributing? In short, why not promote English, plus other languages?’ (Crawford 1997).


3.1  A Melting Pot?  ‘…Preserving our nation’s unity … is one of the top priorities of the American people’, writes Mauro Mujica.  Advocates of Official English fear that the use of multiple languages in government threatens American identity and cohesion.  Mujica states that they must thwart ‘those who are working to make America officially multi-lingual’.  (See Dicker 2000:50). 

                Actually, there is no ‘official multilingual’ movement, nor has there ever been in the United States.  In fact many view that there is no present linguistic problem.  ‘English is unquestionably the major language of communication at all levels of government, while the use of other languages is minimal’.  (See Dicker 2000:51).  In cases where the government does use other languages it is generally to assist immigrants in their transition to American society.  Where would these newcomers be without support on their level?

                The idea of enforcing a national language to promote identity bases itself on the underlying assertion that speaking anything besides English makes one ‘less American’.  While established citizens seek to protect the idealistic ‘melting pot’, Susan Dicker sees this as a futile effort upholding an illusion.  She explains in (6):

        (6).  Established Americans would blanch at the idea of the melting pot if they realized their own role in it:  whatever characteristics they call their own, including language, would have to be thrown into the pot along with those of newer Americans, to be melted into a new, hybrid American prototype.  Instead, established Americans insist on newcomers shedding whatever makes them different, in order to blend in with existing ideas and practices.  At the same time, each new group has hung onto its identity, including its language, as long as possible, until shamed and intimidated in shedding all or most evidence of its ‘non-Americaness’.  It is this contentious scenario, and not the melting pot, which most accurately describes the history of national identity in the U.S.  (See Dicker 2000:52).


                Preservation of national unity and identity are surely worthy causes; however, the means by which they are preserved should be carefully measured.  When debating official language laws in Arizona, the district court considered the cause of unity then responded, ‘Equally important however is the American tradition of tolerance, a tradition that recognizes the critical difference between the use of English and repressing the use of other languages’.  (See Lee 1997:10).  Dismissal of such tolerance would have major consequences, not only on government officials and employees, but also on many Americans who would be precluded from receiving important information from their local, state, and federal governments.


3.2.  Socio-Economics and Immigration.  Some view Official English legislation as useless, and in fact insulting in its uselessness—on equal grounds with legislation to make the bald eagle the official bird, says Roger Rice (1997) Co-Executive Director of Multi-Cultural Education Training and Advocacy.  Furthermore, laws that bar sections of the population from certain services could harmfully affect lives, he says.  ‘It is pretty clear that some people in this country are upset at immigrants, both legal and undocumented’, Rice added.  ‘This is all part of a backlash against immigration’.  (See Lee 1997:10). 

More and more companies are adopting English-Only policies in the workplace for reasons of ‘employee unity and safety’.  ‘We see people being reprimanded not for violating safety laws, but because they are talking to a fellow employee in the elevator [in a language other than English]’, says William Tamayo, a San Francisco lawyer for The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  (See Coolidge 1998:1).  This development reflects a growing wariness to accept immigrants in a nation built by immigrants, and sensitivity (or lack of it) to linguistic diversity.  ‘Language is a very emotional subject,’ says Marielena Hincapie, a lawyer at the Employment Law Center in San Francisco. ‘A lot of the arguments companies are making [for English-only policies] are not logical or legal, but are coming from inside’.  (Coolidge 1998:1).

The lure of money and employment ensures that immigrants will want to learn English, making mandatory English legislation unnecessary.  Harry Pachon, who oversees a Hispanic studies project at Claremont College feels that English-only laws are not only superfluous, but also run into areas they can’t legislate around.  He explains in (7):

(7)  ‘What do you do about things such as [Rescue] 911 numbers, social service delivery, and child abuse clinics where you need to have bilingual personnel?  Everywhere they have passed, these laws run into problems’.  (See Wood 1995:4). 


In many ways, Official English policies are unwarranted and cumbersome legislations based on cultural paranoia.


3.3  A Stand for Bilingual Education.  In contrast to U.S. English’s deprived, remedial view of bilingual education, English Plus nourishes a hopeful optimism that if native languages can be maintained while English is acquired, the nation will benefit from a broadened garden of linguistic resources. 

                Bilingual education has struggled with a stormy past.[ii]  Fierce opposition today continues to thwart educators’ efforts.  Nevertheless ‘the need for such programs ought to be obvious in an era when upwards of two million immigrant children are enrolled in American public schools, … these kids will get little or no education unless it is in their own language’.  ( See Seligman 1995:141).

                Provided adequately trained educators are afforded appropriate classroom conditions, native-language instruction has proven to be beneficial for non-English speaking students to develop scholastically while acquiring English language skills.   Susan Dicker mentions a study by linguist Jim Cummins (1998) done in five states involving approximately 2,000 students over a seven-year period.  He tracked students placed three types of educational programs:  (1) English immersion programs, (2) early-exit bilingual programs in which non-English was used principally for clarification and students were mainstreamed by the second grade, and (3) late-exit bilingual programs where at least 40% of instructional time was in non-English and students stayed in the program until sixth grade. 

The results showed that when children are instructed in their native language, English acquisition ability is not hindered and general academic development is actually enhanced.  Cummins found that it is not realistic to expect children instructed with little use of their native language to be prepared for mainstreaming within as few as two years.  He calls for long-term programs that ‘nurture the development of the native language’.  (See Dicker 2000:62).

                Supporters of English Plus do not deny the need for reform in Bilingual Education; there is always room for improvement.  Many successful programs exist which could serve as patterns for reform policies.  Carmen Dinos, a Brooklyn College professor cites several reasons for their success in School District 19, in New York City.  First, teachers provide a ‘supportive atmosphere.  Children have to be given an opportunity to grow at their own pace’.  Also, a well-trained staff of fluent bilingual teachers encourage the transfer of Spanish proficiency.  ‘Allowing children to continue in the bilingual strategy doesn’t hurt their abilitiy to learn English; it enhances it’, says Dinos.  Finally, Latino parents are more able to give their child valuable support with schoolwork in a language they understand.  (See Crawford 2000:230-31).

                Efficacy of bilingual programs depends greatly on the attitudes of its participants: students as well as teachers, administrators, and school officials.  In his October 25, 2001 colloquium in Provo, UT, Dr. William Eggington stated that teachers of English must learn to value the native tongue of their students and use it positively in the classroom.  Bilingual education promotes solidarity when presented as a method of opportunity, he said.  (See Eggington).


4.  My Turn:  The Author’s Conclusive Statements.  The purposes of this paper were (1) to discover the real legal issues behind the Official English debate and (2) to analyze opposing arguments concerning our nation’s identity, social or economic consequences, and the curse/blessing of bilingual education. 

                We observed that lawmakers have long considered declaring English the country’s official language, yet attempts have failed nationally due to disinterest or hesitance to rock current language policy boat.  U.S. English advocates see an official language as a cord of unity binding us as a nation, despite our diverse origins.  They believe that use of languages besides English in government pulls us apart socially and threatens the ‘Americaness’ immigrants came to find.    Because English is the ‘language of opportunity’ newcomers should learn it as quickly as possible to be able to contribute to society.  However, present language education efforts are sadly insufficient due to their quality of native-language instruction and inefficient squandering of government allocated funding.

                On the contrary, English Plus supporters will continue to fight Official English policies, viewing them as unnecessary and unjust.  The only threat to ‘Americaness’ they see is the blatant discrimination against new Americans—denying them communication with and assistance from government on all levels.  Immigrants want to learn English to get better jobs and improve their economic status.  But implementing mandatory English use is undignified and unrealistic.  With English Plus bilingual education for adults and children alike, students acquire English while preserving their valuable native tongue, and thus improve cognition on multiple levels.

                 Some established Americans struggle with a dangerous comfort factor:  they seem to forget that their parents or grandparents at one time had to struggle as immigrants do today. Columnist William Wong observed a national attitude in (8):

(8) Lurking behind the majority votes of the contrarians is a fear that our way of life is in danger of being overrun by burrito trucks, sushi vendors, dim sum parlors and vats of kimchee. And the cacophony of tongues! Doesn't anybody speak English anymore? (See Wong 1998).


It is ironic that some feel English is being endangered, when in reality no other language on earth has ever spread so extensively or rapidly with as much power or influence.  If this cultural paranoia continues to sweep the nation, the ugly effect will be manifested in our neighborhoods, schools, courtrooms, etc.   How can children learn tolerance from parents who frown on public use of languages besides precious English?

                Did our Founding Fathers intended to give government so much power that they could dictate even what language we were to speak?  Did they wish to set a predetermined ‘American’ model upon which naturalization is predicated.  (i.e. When you can prove you have Ford Explorer parked in your two-car garage surrounded by a white picket fence, you shall be granted citizenship.) 

                To continue useful discussion of the issue, supporters of these two arguments should become more familiar with the true opinions and intentions of their opponent, or else they will waste their passion throwing darts at a nebulous target.  The two sides seem to agree on many issues such as the importance of English in America, the value of English education, unity with diversity.  Moderate supporters on each side could join together to promote language learning and reform bilingual education inefficiencies. Yet with extremists on either end tugging in the name of American identity or American tolerance, the debate will continue unresolved.  Hopefully with additional insight to the ‘true’ issues well-informed citizens can voice their objective opinions and help establish policies of solidarity ‘with justice for all’.

5.  Notes

[i] Congress has not always been unfriendly to policies encouraging official use of non-English.  To step back in time a bit, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 allowed native-language instruction and dealt with educational inequities.  With the 1965 Convention Interpreter Act and 1975 Amendment to the Voting Rights Act, government used non-English to help bring first-generation immigrants and language minorities into American society.  Present pursuits, however, call for change as H. R. 123 repeals Bilingual Election Requirements and amends the Voting Rights Act. .  (See Dicker 2000:47).  


[ii] English Plus advocate James Crawford writes extensively on the subject of multilingualism and bilingual education.  He recognizes that some past programs, such as mid-1970s implementation of the Bilingual Education Act, were thrown together by government with minimal discussion or scrutiny, and imposed by neglectful local authorities.  The serious criticism following this impetuosity has produced a stigma difficult to overcome. (See Crawford 1992:85-86).