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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.
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. 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.
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 As a condition to admittance to the Union, Louisiana included in its constitution a provision, which was later repealed, that required all official documents be published in the language "in which the Constitution of the United States is written".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.
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. 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."
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. 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. (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.)
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. This bill did not pass in Congress despite significant support—especially from Irish immigrants who were resentful of British influence.
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."
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."
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."
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In 1980, Dade County, Florida voters approved an "anti-bilingual ordinance". However, this was repealed by the county commission in 1993, after "racially orientated redistricting" led to a change in government.
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.
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".
The U.S. Senate voted on two separate changes to an immigration bill in May 2006. 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.
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. 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%.
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.
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."
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." Rachele Lawton, applying critical discourse analysis, argues that English-only's rhetoric suggests that the "real motivation is discrimination and disenfranchisement."
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. 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.
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. In one instance, an elementary school bus driver prohibited students from speaking Spanish on their way to school after Colorado passed its legislation. In 2004 in Scottsdale, a teacher claimed to be enforcing English immersion policies when she allegedly slapped students for speaking Spanish in class. 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."
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.
|Place||English official||Other official language(s)||Note|
|Alaska||Yes||Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian|
|Arizona||Yes||None||since 2006, 1988 law ruled unconstitutional|
|California||Yes||None||since 1986 with Proposition 63|
|Illinois||Yes||None||since 1969; "American" official 1923–1969|
|Louisiana||No||None||French has had special status since 1968 founding of CODOFIL.|
|Massachusetts||Yes||None||Since 2002, 1975 law ruled unconstitutional|
|New Hampshire||Yes||None||since 1995|
|New Mexico||No||None||Spanish has had special status since 1912 passage of state constitution. See article. English Plus since 1989|
|North Carolina||Yes||None||since 1987|
|North Dakota||Yes||None||since 1987|
|Oklahoma||Yes||None||since 2010. Cherokee language has been official within the Cherokee and the UKB since 1991. |
|Oregon||No||None||English Plus since 1989|
|Rhode Island||No||None||English Plus since 1992|
|South Carolina||Yes||None||since 1987|
|South Dakota||Yes||Sioux||since 1995, since 2019 |
|Washington||No||None||English Plus since 1989|
|West Virginia||Yes||None||since 2016|
|District of Columbia||No||None|
|American Samoa||Yes||Samoan |
|Northern Mariana Islands||Yes||Chamorro, Carolinian |
|U.S. Virgin Islands||Yes||None|
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.
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