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Issues in U.S. Language Policy

Language Legislation in the U.S.A.

English Only legislation first appeared in 1981 as a constitutional English Language Amendment. This proposal, if approved by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures, would have banned virtually all uses of languages other than English by federal, state, and local governments. But the measure has never come to a Congressional vote, even in committee.

Since 1981, 25 states have adopted various forms of Official English legislation, in addition to four that had already done so. Subtracting Hawai'i (which is officially bilingual) and Alaska (whose English-only initiative was first declared unconstitutional, then modified to recognize 20 Alaska native languages) leaves a total of 27 states with active Official English laws. These measures are unrelated, however, to the process of amending the U.S. Constitution.

In the early 1990s English Only advocates changed their strategy. Recognizing the long odds against ratifying a constitutional amendment, they began to promote a statutory form of Official English. Such a bill would apply to the federal government alone and would require only a simple majority vote in Congress (as well as the President's signature) to become law. Several versions of so-called "Language of Government" legislation have appeared since that time. One of these bills, H.R. 123, passed the House of Representatives – but not the Senate – in 1996. So the measure failed to become law.

Similar legislation is introduced in each new Congress. Generally speaking, it would amend the U.S. Code in the following ways:

  • English would be designated the official language of the U.S. government – indeed, the only language that federal employees and officials, including members of Congress, would be permitted to use for most government business.
  • The English Only mandate would extend to federal "actions, documents, policies ... publications, income tax forms, informational materials," records, proceedings, letters to citizens – indeed, to any form of written communication on behalf of the U.S. government.
  • Exceptions to the ban on federal use of other languages would be permitted for purposes that include national security, international trade and diplomacy, public health and safety, criminal proceedings, language teaching, certain handicapped programs, and the preservation of Native American languages.
  • An "entitlement" would be created, ensuring the "right" of every person to communicate with the federal government in English – in effect, a guaranteee of language rights, but for English speakers only.
  • Civil lawsuits to enforce the law would be permitted by persons claiming to have been "injured by a violation" of it – a "right of action" that could give virtually any taxpayer the standing to sue in federal court.
  • Naturalization ceremonies would be specifically restricted to English only.
  • Bilingual provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which guarantee minority-language voting materials in certain jurisdictions, would be repealed.
Much uncertainty remains about the practical impact of Official English bills on a spectrum of language services, from bilingual education to Social Security pamphlets to sign-language interpreting. If passed, its interpretation would almost certainly be determined by the courts. The 1996 House floor debate on the bill offers various views on its pros, cons, and potential effects. The Clinton Administration strongly opposed this legislation (see Justice Department letter). The Bush administration has yet to take a formal position, although as governor of Texas, George W. Bush spoke out against  Official English and anti-bilingual-education proposals.

For an excellent and comprehensive critique of Official English, see the 1996 House committee testimony of Edward Chen, a language rights litigator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Further analysis may be found in English Only Updates.

Meanwhile, opponents have proposed a legislative alternative known as English Plus, in the form of nonbinding resolutions sponsored since the mid-1990s by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.).

To make members of Congress aware of your views on language legislation (or any other matter), you may contact your Senator or Representative by email or fax – at no charge – by clicking here. You may also want to contact members of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and the House Committees on Education and the Workforce and on the Judiciary, which have jurisdiction over English Only bills.

State Official English Laws

English Plus Resolutions

NOTE: Thanks to email correspondents who have alerted me to late developments in several states. If anyone else has information on pending language legislation not listed here, I would appreciate hearing from you at

Copyright © 1997-2008 by James Crawford. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this page for free, noncommercial distribution, provided that credit is given and this notice is included. Requests for permission to reproduce in any other form should be emailed to this address. But before writing, please read my permissions FAQ 

Last updated on 1 February 2012