Chapter 6: English Only or English Plus?
By James Crawford

Official Language Question
Roots of U.S. English
Charges of Racism
Hidden Agendas
English Plus Alternative
English Only vs. Bilingual Education
Secretary Bennett’s Broadside
Research Debate
1988 Battle over Title VII
Stanford Working Group
Improving America’s Schools Act

When Americans first learned about the campaign to declare English the nation’s official language, the prevailing reaction was: Isn’t it already? That’s what two-thirds of respondents said in a 1987 survey to test citizens’ knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the country had gotten by for 200 years without giving English any special status in law, or even debating the wisdom of doing so, no doubt because its dominant status in society was never in question. Congress considered such legislation for the first time in 1981, when it was proposed by Senator S. I. Hayakawa of California.

A longtime critic of schooling in languages other than English, Hayakawa hoped to recast the issue from a question of equal opportunity, the dominant paradigm of the 1960s and 1970s, to a question of internal security. In short, he warned that fostering diversity could lead to civil strife. Arguing that bilingual education had departed from its original mission of assimilating immigrants, he pointed to “a growing split among ethnic groups based on their native languages. With each trying to become more powerful than the other, the function of language could change from a means of communication to a tool of cultural assertion. Such a struggle for supremacy could have catastrophic consequences.”

His proposed remedy was a constitutional amendment to designate English as the official language of the United States. ... In other words, government at all levels would be required to function in English only.

Hayakawa’s English Language Amendment, like similar constitutional proposals over the next two decades, never advanced beyond the hearing stage or came to a vote in Congress, even in committee.2 In 23 states, however, voters or legislators have adopted some form of Official English legislation.3 While the legal effects have been minimal thus far, the political effects have been significant. By crystallizing concerns about immigrants and their social impact, the English-only movement has led many Americans to view “bilingualism” as a social problem, thereby putting bilingual assistance programs of all kinds on the defensive. In 1986, for example, 73 percent of California voters approved Proposition 63, an amendment to their state constitution instructing elected officials to “take all steps necessary to insure that the role of English as the common language of the State of California is preserved and enhanced.” Shortly thereafter, Governor George Deukmejian vetoed an extension of California’s bilingual education law, arguably the nation’s strongest at the time. The English-only movement had begun to realize Hayakawa’s strategic objective, by reframing the policy debate on how to serve English learners.

In the civil-rights era, policymakers had asked: Given the obvious failure of sink-or-swim schooling, wasn’t it time to try something new? What pedagogical approaches, what mix of languages in the classroom, would provide English learners an equal chance to succeed? By the mid-1980s they wanted to know: How could children be taught English as quickly as possible, so as to mitigate the impact of linguistic diversity? Might the goal of assimilation be better achieved without resorting to native-language instruction? Bilingual education, once conceived as a way to expand opportunities for LEP children and a superior approach to teaching English, was now denounced as a barrier to students’ full participation in American life and a potential source of ethnic strife. To understand how this reversal in perceptions took place, and how English-only advocates came to be so influential, it is helpful to analyze the movement’s origins and premises.

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