Language Loyalties

Editor's Introduction


By James Crawford


Official English caught most Americans by surprise. When the campaign emerged in the early 1980s, language was an unlikely political issue for the United States. The matter of our national tongue had long since been settled or so it seemed. At first, we paid little attention to warnings about creeping bilingualism and the endangered status of English. This sounded like nothing more than the buzzing of gadflies. Or perhaps, as one New York Congressman suggested, it was "another of the crazy California movements" with an apocalyptic vision to espouse. Who else would claim that English needed "legal protection" in a country where, according to the 1980 Census, it was spoken by all but 2 percent of residents above the age of four and where only 11 percent were regular speakers of another tongue?<1> A new Babel hardly seemed imminent. Americans have seldom fought over language, precisely because we have taken the dominance of English for granted. As late as 1987, two-thirds of respondents to a national survey assumed that the Constitution already designated English as the official language of the United States.

In fact, the framers were silent on the question. No one had even thought to broach it in Congress until Senator S. I. Hayakawa did so in 1981. A critic of bilingual education and bilingual voting rights, Hayakawa introduced a constitutional amendment to make English official. That seemed innocuous enough, a ceremonial gesture to ratify the obvious except that it went further. The measure would also prohibit federal and state "laws, ordinances, regulations, orders, programs, and policies" from requiring the use of other languages. Its thrust was not only for English, but against bilingualism. If adopted, Hayakawa's proposal would reverse a trend begun in the late 1960s toward accommodating the needs of linguistic minorities. But the English Language Amendment was largely ignored, and it died without a hearing in the 97th Congress.

Then, shortly after retiring in 1983, the Senator helped to found U.S. English, a lobbying effort that generated national attention. Its program "In Defense of Our Common Language" was greeted as a curiosity by journalists. "The Mother Tongue Has a Movement," announced The New York Times. A spectrum of luminaries including Alistair Cooke, Saul Bellow, Walter Cronkite, Norman Cousins, Gore Vidal, Norman Podhoretz, and Arnold Schwarzenegger signed up for the U.S. English "advisory board," lending their prestige to its letterhead and direct-mail fundraising. (Later, several would resign in embarrassment.) Official English now became fodder for right-of-center pundits. In a Fourth of July column, George F. Will pontificated on "the connection between the English language and American liberty." William F. Buckley, Jr., citing the "Canadian Frog" nuisance, endorsed Hayakawa's approach for quelling our own "militant Spanish-speaking minority." Another boost came when Phil Donahue featured the English Language Amendment on his syndicated talk show, staged before thousands of screaming guests in a Miami stadium.<2> "I English" bumper-stickers began to appear in Florida and other areas feeling the impact of Hispanic and Asian immigration. Within five years U.S. English mushroomed into a 400,000-member organization with a $6 million annual budget.

Legislators, always on the lookout for novel issues, began to climb aboard. Thirty-seven state houses considered Official English in 1987 alone. It was also a hit with the voters. U.S. English passed ballot initiatives in California and other Sunbelt states, usually by large margins; elsewhere, opinion polls showed support ranging from 60 to 90 percent. More than a dozen versions of the English Language Amendment have appeared in Congress since Hayakawa's original proposal, attracting scores of cosponsors, although none has yet come to a vote. The campaign has fared better in the states. By 1990 seventeen had adopted statutes or constitutional amendments declaring English their official tongue.

Despite the groundswell, however, Official English has become a polarizing issue, revealing an enormous gap in perceptions. For supporters, the case is obvious: English has always been our common language, a means of resolving conflicts in a nation of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Reaffirming the preeminence of English means reaffirming a unifying force in American life. Moreover, English is an essential tool of social mobility and economic advancement. The English Language Amendment would "send a message" to immigrants, encouraging them to join in rather than remain apart, and to government, cautioning against policies that might retard English acquisition.

For opponents, Official English is synonymous with English Only: a mean-spirited attempt to coerce Anglo-conformity by terminating essential services in other languages. The amendment poses a threat to civil rights, educational opportunities, and free speech, even in the private sector. It is an insult to the heritage of cultural minorities, including groups whose roots in this country go deeper than English speakers': Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and American Indians. Worst of all, the English Only movement serves to justify racist and nativist biases under the cover of American patriotism.

Sorting out the arguments and counter-arguments is no easy task. This has been especially true for voters encountering the English Language Amendment for the first time. Because Americans lack a tradition of language politics that is to say, a history in which language predominated as a symbol, weapon, and stake of ethnic conflict there is little information or experience to apply. And yet, amending the Constitution is no casual enterprise. It would be rash to go forward without answering a number of pertinent questions:

  • If declaring English the official U.S. language is a good idea, why didn't it occur to anyone in the previous two hundred years? What language legislation was adopted by Americans in the past and what were the results?
  • Are today's immigrants learning English more slowly or more rapidly than their predecessors? Do bilingual programs discourage assimilation by serving as a crutch, or promote it by easing newcomers' passage into the mainstream?
  • What would happen if government suddenly terminated its use of languages other than English? Who would be affected and how?
  • Is our situation comparable to Canada's, a bilingual federation that may face dissolution because of ethnic and linguistic tensions? Or Australia's, an English-dominant society where immigrant and indigenous languages are conserved as national assets?

Serious discussion of these points has been limited. The factual vacuum, however, seems to have done nothing to inhibit opinionated bickering over Official English.

My first encounter with the campaign occurred in the mid-1980s as a reporter for Education Week. William J. Bennett, then Secretary of Education, had recently delivered a speech attacking the federal Bilingual Education Act as "a failed path, a bankrupt course," and a waste of $1.7 billion of the taxpayers' money. This caused an uproar in education circles. But Bennett's office announced it was receiving hundreds of letters from the public, which were running more than five to one in support of his views. As a newcomer to the bilingual education beat, I thought it might be instructive to stop by and read the Secretary's mail (along with public comments on new regulations he had proposed for bilingual programs).

To my surprise, most of the "supporting" letters had less to do with schooling for non-English-speaking students than with illegal aliens on welfare, communities being "overrun" by Asians and Hispanics, "macho-oriented" foreigners trying to impose their culture on Americans, and a special concern the out-of-control birthrates of linguistic minorities. Some writers singled out particular groups for abuse: "Today's Hispanics, on the whole, lack the motivation of earlier immigrants." Others worried that they would be "forced to learn a foreign language" (i.e., Spanish) or that the interests of "the English- speaking majority" would be sacrificed on the altar of affirmative action. Several charged that providing bilingual education and bilingual ballots was "an insult to the memory of my non-English-speaking ancestors," who allegedly had struggled to learn the language without any special help. Many correspondents ended with calls for Official English: "WHOSE AMERICA IS THIS? ONE FLAG. ONE LANGUAGE."<3>

Obviously, a lot more was happening here than an arcane debate over instructional methodologies. Bilingual education had become a lightning rod for tensions about demographic and cultural change, increased immigration from the Third World, reforms in civil rights, and the political empowerment of minorities. Secretary Bennett's fans were in no mood to be distracted by evidence and analysis. They were offended by the idea of spending tax dollars to perpetuate foreign tongues, rather than requiring immigrants to learn our language from the outset; of catering to newcomers, who should be grateful to be here instead of demanding government handouts; of creating rights and privileges for foreigners never granted to U.S. citizens abroad; of subsidizing ethnic cultures, formerly a private matter, rather than revering the public tradition of the melting pot; of devaluing English and the American way of life. Amid all the outrage over symbols, there was little awareness of the practicalities of bilingual education for example, its role in teaching English (which is demonstrably superior to the brutal, sink-or-swim methods of the past) or its potential to nurture vital skills in other languages (which is seldom realized, to the country's misfortune).

This, in microcosm, is the state of the Official English controversy. A mythic struggle is raging over models of Americanism, preconceptions about immigrants and their place in the pecking order, shibboleths of belonging and exclusion, and loyalties to tribal gods and national icons. Meanwhile, back in the real world, linguistic diversity in increasing and posing challenges for the United States.

To cite just one example: During the past decade the enrollment of limited-English-proficient (LEP) children nearly tripled in California's public schools, far outpacing the state's ability to train or recruit bilingual and English-as-a-second-language (E.S.L.) teachers. Understandably, the state is scrambling to serve speakers of the fastest growing language groups: Cambodian, Hmong, Lao, Pilipino, Farsi, and Armenian. In raw numbers, however, the shortage of qualified teachers is greatest for the 75 percent of California's LEP students who speak Spanish.<4> According to the U.S. Supreme Court in Lau v. Nichols, children who receive no help in overcoming language barriers "are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education." Yet this is the fate of many California pupils, who sit in classrooms unable to understand what their teachers are saying. Such instruction as they receive is provided by uncertified teacher aides and itinerant E.S.L. specialists. Ironically, a state that has pioneered innovative bilingual programs is failing to meet the demand for them, in part because of budget constraints, in part because of ideological resistance. English Only fervor, culminating in the passage of Proposition 63, frustrated attempts to extend California's bilingual education law after it expired in 1987. Now there is uncertainty about school districts' obligations toward language-minority students, more of whom arrive each year. What is to be done?

It is time that Americans had a constructive discussion about language policy, indeed, that we had a language policy, consciously planned and national in scope. The question of Official English, which has focused public attention on these problems for the first time in many years, could supply the impetus. But not without a more informed debate. While numerous excellent articles have appeared in recent years, no single volume has been available to offer a multidimensional view of the issues.

The Source Book was conceived at the Conference on Language Rights and Public Policy on April 16-17, 1988, organized by the Stanford University Department of Linguistics and Californians United Against Proposition 63. As its title and sponsorship suggest, the conference brought together academics and activists (as well as language educators, civil rights lawyers, business representatives, and public officials) who oppose Official English and seek alternatives. One important goal of the conference was to broaden the public discussion. Policy choices involving language are asserting themselves in the schools, social service agencies, courtrooms, voting booths, government licensing bureaus, places of employment, and the consumer marketplace. Such decisions are far more complex than an up-or-down vote on whether we should, in the words of Proposition 63, "take all steps necessary to insure that the role of English as the common language ... is preserved and enhanced." Whatever that may mean. Debates over Official English tend to focus narrowly (and inconclusively) on the legislation's likely effects, intended or otherwise, and on the motives of supporters and opponents. More substantive matters tend to be neglected.

Nevertheless, the Official English controversy is exerting a strong influence on policymakers which makes public education crucial. The issue cannot be understood out of context, through fiery slogans and thirty-second television spots. An intelligent position requires some knowledge of: (1) the historic role of English in American identity and our past responses to minority tongues; (2) the array of arguments for and against Official English as they have developed in Congress and state campaigns; (3) the sociological significance of language conflicts, for example, their impact in various U.S. communities; (4) legal precedents on language and civil liberties, as well as the constitutional questions raised by Official English; (5) implications of linguistic diversity for American schools, in particular the contention surrounding bilingual education; and (6) other nations' experiences in grappling with language as a political problem and an exploitable resource.

These topics of interest formed the agenda of the Stanford conference, and they define this anthology as well. The goal of the Source Book is to provide a comprehensive guide to today's language policy debates. It is intended to aid advocates, educators, policymakers, scholars, and citizens seeking to join this fascinating and important discussion. Besides reprinting what I regard to be the strongest existing articles in each subject area, I have solicited original contributions from conference participants and other experts. Also, I have collected relevant primary documents: court decisions, legislation, historical writings, and Congressional testimony. Finally, I have included samples of advocacy on both sides of the Official English question.

The intent here is not to offer "equal time" to opposing views, but to elaborate and clarify the central arguments. My own bias, and the bias of those who have supported this project, should be stated clearly: Adopting English as the official language would be a backward step for this country. The English Only campaign offers at best a simplistic answer to our language problems, at worst a vehicle for xenophobia. This, I believe, is good reason to portray it accurately for purposes of analyzing and responding to its claims. At the same time, I would emphasize that the Source Book reflects a variety of opinion about many issues apart from Official English.

A note on terminology: No attempt has been made to standardize usage. Except in minor matters of spelling and punctuation, each author retains full responsibility for his or her words. This includes the labeling of Anglos, Americans, Anglo-Americans, non-Hispanic whites, Chicanos, Latinos, Cubans, blacks, African Americans, Asians, Chinese Americans, Indians, Native Americans, and similar political decisions. Also, the reader will notice that the terms Official English and English Only often appear as synonyms, a usage that warrants some explanation. Supporters of Official English have objected to equating their position with English Only, arguing that they are concerned solely with the language of government, not of private speech. They neglect to acknowledge, however, that it was U.S. English that first popularized the label during a 1984 California initiative, entitled "Voting Materials in English Only." More important for opponents, English Only highlights the restrictionist face of Official English: its attempt not merely to recognize one language, but to limit the use of others in government and other domains. The dispute over terms has become a feature of the larger debate, and I see no reason to restrict anyone's freedom of speech in the matter.

In the interest of readability, I have chosen articles for their brevity or, failing in that, have abridged longer selections. Where documents of a legal or historical nature have been excerpted, the omissions are marked with elipses. For readers who prefer to skip around rather than read straight through, there are frequent cross-references to related articles and documents.

I want to acknowledge the generous support of the National Education Association and, in particular, Mary Sosa, Wilbur Luna, and Gloria Barajas of the N.E.A.'s Human and Civil Rights Division, who provided encouragement and resources that made this volume possible. Additional support came from Californians United through the auspices and financial management of the Japanese American Citizens League. Edward Chen and Geoffrey Nunberg supplied invaluable advice at every stage of the project, from conception through final editing. Also, I am indebted to the numerous authors who contributed original articles to fill gaps in the literature on U.S. language policy and related issues. Finally, I want to thank Mary Carol Combs, former director of the English Plus Information Clearinghouse and unequaled resource on the Official English controversy, who first brought to my attention many of the materials collected here.

1. The latter figure is probably overstated; 11 percent of U.S. residents above the age of four lived in households where a language other than English was spoken, while 98 percent reported that they spoke English "well" or "very well"; U.S. Bureau of the Census, United States Summary, General Social and Economic Characteristics (1980), Table 99, p. 68.

2. New York Times, June 3, 1984, sec. 4, p. 8; George F. Will, "In Defense of the Mother Tongue," Newsweek, July 8, 1985, p. 78; William F. Buckley, Jr., "Avoiding Canada's Problem," National Review, Oct. 18, 1985, pp. 62-63; Lourdes Meluza, "Donahue Touches Bilingual Nerve in Show's Finale," Miami Herald, Feb. 8, 1986, p. 1B.

3. For more samples of these letters, see my book, Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory, and Practice, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: Bilingual Educational Services, 1995) pp. 13, 66.

4. The state's language census identified more than 743,000 LEP students in 1989, up from 288,000 in 1979. By 1990 California faced a shortfall of approximately 11,000 bilingual teachers; see Assembly Bill 4308 (March 2, 1990); California State Department of Education, Bilingual Education Office, BEOutreach, Jan. 1990, p. 1.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: From LANGUAGE LOYALTIES: A SOURCE BOOK ON THE OFFICIAL ENGLISH CONTROVERSY, by James Crawford, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1992 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.