English-only movement

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Sticker sold in Colorado demanding immigrants speak English

The English-only movement, also known as the Official English movement, is a political movement that advocates for the use of only the English language in official United States government operations through the establishment of English as the only official language in the US. The US has never had a legal policy proclaiming an official national language. However, at some times and places, there have been various moves to promote or require the use of English, such as in Native American boarding schools. U.S. English is the nation's oldest and largest organization advocating for Official English. The movement has come to be seen as a far right talking point in contemporary US politics, and a dog whistle for racism against non-English speakers in the country.[1]

Early efforts[edit]

Disputes between citizens and immigrants over English have been waged since the 1750s, when street signs were changed in Pennsylvania to include both English and German languages to accommodate the many German immigrants.[2] According to Rich and Vance, the German-English debate continued until World War I when international hostility resulted in the rejection of all things German, including the prohibition of the German language and German-language materials, particularly books.[3]

In 1803, as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, the United States acquired French-speaking populations in Louisiana. As a condition to admittance to the Union, Louisiana included in its constitution a provision, which was later repealed, that required all official documents be published in the language "in which the Constitution of the United States is written". Today, Louisiana has no law stating that English is the official language of the State.[4]

After the Mexican–American War (1846–1848), the United States acquired about 75,000 Spanish speakers in addition to several indigenous language-speaking populations.

An 1847 law authorized Anglo-French instruction in public schools in Louisiana. In 1849, the California constitution recognized Spanish language rights. French language rights were abolished after the American Civil War.[citation needed] In 1868, the Indian Peace Commission recommended English-only schooling for the Native Americans. In 1878–79, the California constitution was rewritten to state that "[a]ll laws of the State of California, and all official writings, and the executive, legislative, and judicial proceedings shall be conducted, preserved, and published in no other than the English language."[citation needed]

In the late 1880s, Wisconsin and Illinois passed English-only instruction laws for both public and parochial schools.

In 1896, under the Republic of Hawaii government, English became the primary medium of public schooling for Hawaiian children. After the Spanish–American War, English was declared "the official language of the school room" in Puerto Rico.[5] In the same way, English was declared the official language in the Philippines, after the Philippine–American War.

During World War I, there was a widespread campaign against the use of the German language in the US; this included removing books in the German language from libraries.[3] (A related action took place in South Australia as well with the Nomenclature Act of 1917. The legislation renamed 69 towns, suburbs, or areas that had German names.)[6]

In 1923, a bill drafted by Congressman Washington J. McCormick became the first proposed legislation regarding the United States' national language that would have made "American" the national language in order to differentiate the United States's language from that of England.[2] This bill did not pass in Congress despite significant support—especially from Irish immigrants who were resentful of British influence.[citation needed]


In 1907, US President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house."[7]

U.S. English, the nation's oldest and largest organization advocating for Official English, summarizes their belief by saying that "the passage of English as the official language will help to expand opportunities for immigrants to learn and speak English, the single greatest empowering tool that immigrants must have to succeed."[8]

ProEnglish, the nation's leading group advocating Official English, summarizes its belief that "in a pluralistic nation such as ours, the function of government should be to foster and support the similarities that unite us, rather than institutionalize the differences that divide us." Therefore, ProEnglish "works through the courts and in the court of public opinion to defend English's historic role as America's common, unifying language, and to persuade lawmakers to adopt English as the official language at all levels of government."[9]


In 1980, Dade County, Florida voters approved an "anti-bilingual ordinance".[10] However, this was repealed by the county commission in 1993, after "racially orientated redistricting"[11] led to a change in government.[12]

In 1981, English was declared the official language in the commonwealth of Virginia.[13]

In 1983, John Tanton and U.S. Senator S. I. Hayakawa founded a political lobbying organization, U.S. English. (Tanton was a former head of the Sierra Club's population committee and of Zero Population Growth, and founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an immigration reductionist group.) In 1986, Tanton wrote a memo containing remarks about Hispanics claimed by critics to be derogatory, which appeared in the Arizona Republic newspaper, leading to the resignations from U.S. English board member Walter Cronkite and executive director Linda Chavez; Tanton would also sever his ties to the organization as a result. That same year, 1986, Larry Pratt founded English First, while Lou Zaeske, an engineer from Bryan, Texas, established the American Ethnic Coalition. Mauro Mujica, a Chilean immigrant, was later named Chairman and CEO in 1993.

In 1985, Kae T. Patrick, a member of the Texas House of Representatives from San Antonio was the lone supporter of his unsuccessful attempt to authorize English as the official language of Texas. His House Concurrent Resolution No. 13 died in the State Affairs Committee. Patrick said his resolution was more important than having a "state bird". In subsequent sessions of the legislature, the move toward Official English gained supporters, including Talmadge Heflin of Houston, but never enough members to approve enactment of a law.[14]

In 1994, John Tanton and other former U.S. English associates founded ProEnglish specifically to defend Arizona's English-only law. ProEnglish rejects the term "English-only movement" and asks its supporters to refer to the movement instead as "Official English".[15]

The U.S. Senate voted on two separate changes to an immigration bill in May 2006.[16][17] The amended bill recognized English as a "common and unifying language" and gave contradictory instructions to government agencies on their obligations for non-English publications.[18]

In what was essentially a replay of the 2006 actions, on June 6, 2007 the US Senate again voted on two separate amendments to a subsequent immigration reform bill that closely resembled the amendments to the 2006 Senate bill.[19][20] Ultimately, neither the 2006 nor 2007 immigration reform bill has become law.

On January 22, 2009, voters in Nashville, Tennessee rejected a proposal under a referendum election to make "Nashville the largest city in the United States to prohibit the government from using languages other than English, with exceptions allowed for issues of health and safety." The initiative failed by a vote of 57% to 43%.[21]

In March 2012, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was criticized by some Republican delegates from Puerto Rico when he publicly took the position that Puerto Rico, a Spanish-speaking territory, should be required to make English its primary language as a condition of statehood.[22]

In 2015 during a debate, Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump said, "This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish."[23]


The modern English-only movement has met with rejection from the Linguistic Society of America, which passed a resolution in 1986–87 opposing "'English only' measures on the grounds that they are based on misconceptions about the role of a common language in establishing political unity, and that they are inconsistent with basic American traditions of linguistic tolerance."[24]

Linguist Geoffrey Pullum, in an essay entitled "Here come the linguistic fascists", charges English First with "hatred and suspicion of aliens and immigrants" and points out that English is far from under threat in the United States, saying "making English the official language of the United States of America is about as urgently called for as making hotdogs the official food at baseball games."[25] Rachele Lawton, applying critical discourse analysis, argues that English-only's rhetoric suggests that the "real motivation is discrimination and disenfranchisement."[26]

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has stated that English-only laws are inconsistent with both the First Amendment right to communicate with or petition the government, as well as free speech and the right to equality, because they bar government employees from providing non-English language assistance and services.[27] On August 11, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13166, "Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency." The Executive Order requires Federal agencies to examine the services they provide, identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP), and develop and implement a system to provide those services so LEP persons can have meaningful access to them.[28]

While the judicial system has noted that state English-only laws are largely symbolic and non-prohibitive, supervisors and managers often interpret them to mean English is the mandatory language of daily life.[29] In one instance, an elementary school bus driver prohibited students from speaking Spanish on their way to school after Colorado passed its legislation.[29] In 2004 in Scottsdale, a teacher claimed to be enforcing English immersion policies when she allegedly slapped students for speaking Spanish in class.[30] In 2005 in Kansas City, a student was suspended for speaking Spanish in the school hallways. The written discipline referral explaining the decision of the school to suspend the student for one and a half days, noted: "This is not the first time we have [asked] Zach and others to not speak Spanish at school."[31]

One study of English-only statutes during the Americanization period (1910–1930) finds that the policies moderately increased the literacy of certain foreign-born children but had no impact on immigrants' eventual labor market outcomes or measures of social integration.[32]

Current law[edit]

Map of United States Official Language Status By State
Map of US official language status by state before 2016. Blue: English declared the official language; light-blue: 2 official languages, including English; gray: no official language specified.

The United States federal government does not specify an official language; however, all official documents in the U.S. are written in English, though some are also published in other languages.[49]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ www.apa.org https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/english-only. Retrieved December 1, 2020. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ a b Rich, Alex; Vance, Noelle (March 1, 2016). "English As A National Language: An Overview". Points of View: English As National Language.
  3. ^ a b Martin, James J (1988), An American Adventure in Bookburning in the Style of 1918, Ralph Myles Publisher
  4. ^ Crawford, James. "Language Policy -- Louisiana". Language Legislation in the U.S.A. Retrieved October 10, 2016.
  5. ^ James Crawford (2000). At War With Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety. Multilingual Matters. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-85359-505-9.
  6. ^ Leadbeater, Maureen M. "German Place Names in South Australia". Retrieved December 29, 2007.[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ Roosevelt, Theodore, Works (Memorial ed., 1926), vol. XXIV, p. 554 (New York: Charles Scribner's 11 Sons).
  8. ^ "Background of organization" Archived June 1, 2006, at the Wayback Machine at us-english.org
  9. ^ "Mission of organization" Archived July 18, 2011, at the Wayback Machine at proenglish.org
  10. ^ "The Language Battle: Speaking the Truth" (PDF), Inter-American Law Review, University of Miami Law School, p. 2, February 9, 2007, archived from the original (PDF) on May 15, 2011, retrieved February 17, 2008
  11. ^ "'English only' law may be repealed in Florida county". Observer-Reporter. May 3, 1993. p. A8. The racially orientated redistricting of the Dade County commission may accomplish what a long campaign by Hispanics has failed to do – repeal the local "English only" law.
  12. ^ "The power of language". St. Petersburg Times. May 23, 1993. p. 1D.
  13. ^ Official English Laws: Code of Virginia, Chapter 829, languagepolicy.net, accessed February 22, 2015/
  14. ^ Raymond Tatalovich. Nativism Reborn?: The Official English Language Movement and the American States. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press. p. 166. ISBN 0813130344. Retrieved February 23, 2015.
  15. ^ Official English Is Not "English Only", proenglish.org, archived from the original on January 21, 2008, retrieved February 17, 2008
  16. ^ Roll call vote on the Amendment (Inhofe Amdt. No. 4064), US Senate, May 18, 2006, retrieved April 9, 2009
  17. ^ Roll call vote on the Amendment (Salazar Amdt. No. 4073 As Modified), US Senate, May 18, 2006, retrieved April 9, 2009
  18. ^ "Snopes on the English-only amendments". Retrieved August 25, 2008.
  19. ^ Roll call vote on the Amendment (Inhofe Amdt. No. 1151), US Senate, June 6, 2007, retrieved April 9, 2009
  20. ^ Roll call vote on the Amendment (Salazar Amdt. No. 1384), US Senate, June 6, 2007, retrieved April 9, 2009
  21. ^ "English-only fails; lopsided vote ends heated campaign"[permanent dead link], The Tennessean, January 23, 2009. Retrieved on January 23, 2009.
  22. ^ Seelye, Katherine Q.; Parker, Jr., Ashley (March 15, 2012). "For Santorum, Trying to Tamp Down a Firestorm Over Puerto Rico Remarks". New York Times. Retrieved October 10, 2012.
  23. ^ Goldmacher, Shane (September 23, 2016). "Trump's English-only campaign". Retrieved January 27, 2020.
  24. ^ Geoff Nunberg (December 28, 1986), Resolution: English Only, Linguistic Society of America, archived from the original on April 21, 2008, retrieved February 17, 2008
  25. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey K. (1987), "Here come the linguistic fascists.", Natural Language and Linguistic Theory, 5 (4): 603–9, doi:10.1007/BF00138990, S2CID 171070339. Reprinted in Geoffrey K. Pullum. (1991), The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 111–19, ISBN 0-226-68534-9
  26. ^ Lawton, Rachele (2013), "Speak English or Go Home: The Anti-Immigrant Discourse of the American 'English Only' Movement", Critical Approaches to Discourse Analysis Across Disciplines, 7 (1): 100–122
  27. ^ The Rights of Immigrants -ACLU Position Paper (9/8/2000). Retrieved on 2008-12-11
  28. ^ Executive Order 13166. Retrieved on 2008-12-11 Archived January 5, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ a b Gibson, Kari. English only court cases involving the U.S workplace. University of Hawai'i. Retrieved on 2008-12-11
  30. ^ Anne Ryman and Ofelia Madrid, Hispanics upset by teacher's discipline, The Arizona Republic, January 17, 2004.
  31. ^ T.R. Reid, Spanish At School Translates to Suspension, The Washington Post, December 9, 2005.
  32. ^ Lleras-Muney, Adriana; Shertzer, Allison (2015). "Did the Americanization Movement Succeed? An Evaluation of the Effect of English-Only and Compulsory Schooling Laws on Immigrants †". American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. 7 (3): 258–290. doi:10.1257/pol.20120219.
  33. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au Crawford, James (June 24, 2008). "Language Legislation in the U.S.A." languagepolicy.net. Retrieved April 27, 2011.
  34. ^ "Once forbidden, Alaska's Native languages now official state languages". KTOO. October 24, 2014. Retrieved October 25, 2014.
  35. ^ http://www.akleg.gov/basis/Bill/Detail/28?Root=HB%20216
  36. ^ "Arizona makes English official". Washington Times. November 8, 2006. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
  37. ^ Crawford, James. "Language Policy -- Louisiana". Language Legislation in the U.S.A. Retrieved October 10, 2016.
  38. ^ "Keetoowah Cherokee is the Official Language of the UKB" (PDF). keetoowahcherokee.org/. Keetoowah Cherokee News: Official Publication of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. April 2009. Retrieved June 1, 2014.
  39. ^ "UKB Constitution and By-Laws in the Keetoowah Cherokee Language (PDF)" (PDF). www.keetoowahcherokee.org/. United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. Retrieved June 2, 2014.
  40. ^ "The Cherokee Nation & its Language" (PDF). University of Minnesota: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition. 2008. Retrieved May 22, 2014.
  41. ^ Slipke, Darla (November 3, 2010). "Oklahoma elections: Republican-backed measures win approval". NewsOK. The Oklahoman. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
  42. ^ "Amendment For Printed Bill". South Dakota Legislature.
  43. ^ "U.S. English Efforts Lead West Virginia to Become 32nd State to Recognize English as Official Language". U.S. English. March 5, 2016. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  44. ^ "Samoa now an official language of instruction in American Samoa". Radio New Zealand International. October 3, 2008. Retrieved April 28, 2011.
  45. ^ "Guam". Encyclopaedia Britannica. October 24, 2018. Retrieved October 25, 2018.
  46. ^ "Northern Mariana Islands". Encyclopaedia Britannica. October 19, 2018. Retrieved October 25, 2018.
  47. ^ Crawford, James. "Puerto Rico and Official English". languagepolicy.net. Retrieved April 27, 2011.
  48. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". visitusvi.com. United States Virgin Islands. Retrieved April 27, 2011.
  49. ^ "Spanish language website for the FDA". US Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved July 5, 2008.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lynch, William. "A Nation Established by Immigrants Sanctions Employers for Requiring English to be Spoken at Work: English-Only Work Rules and National Origin Discrimination," 16 Temple Political and Civil Rights Law Review 65 (2006).
  • Olson, Wendy. "The Shame of Spanish: Cultural Bias in English First Legislation," Chicano-Latino Law Review 11 (1991).

External links[edit]