Official English movement

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The Official English movement consists of campaigns in the United States of America which call for English to be made the only official language of the country. A common name for this is 'English Only', which is often used by civil liberties groups to describe the debate. However, those arguing for the promotion of English in U.S. politics and education prefer terms such as 'pro-English' or 'official English'.

The U.S. currently has no official language, but local legislation has made it official in a majority of states. Hawaii (U.S. state) and New Mexico are the only officially bilingual states, with Hawaiian and Spanish respectively the other official languages; many participants on both sides of the debate are of Hispanic/Latino descent, because the biggest language after English in the U.S. is Spanish. Tempers occasionally flare in cases of what one side sees as unjust treatment, and the other side believes to be necessary to promote or protect English; for example, in 2006 a bar in Ohio hit the headlines due to a "For Service Speak English" sign placed outside.[1]

On other occasions, legislation to make English the only official language at local level has been rejected or vetoed following lively debate. For example, official English legislation in Nashville, Tennessee, drafted as a symbolic measure to tackle illegal immigration, was vetoed by the city's mayor in February 2007 on legal grounds: lawyers argued that the measure would have been unconstitutional, and according to Mayor Bill Purcell, it did not "reflect who we are in Nashville."[2] Other cases involve English-only rules enforced by institutions, which have been challenged in or out of court.[3]

Support for English as the sole official U.S. language

The most notable supporter of 'English Only' is 'U.S. English', a 1.8-million-member strong organisation founded in 1983 by Republican Senator S.I. Hayakawa, himself an immigrant.[4] Hayakawa argued that "Bilingualism is fine, but not for a country," a policy which sums up the organization's official position: it supports the teaching of other languages and their private use, but argues that it is "common sense" that immigrants should be taught English rather than benefit from services in their native tongue.[5]

Another major group supporting official status for English is 'ProEnglish', a non-profit organization. The group stresses that is supports the use of other languages in emergencies, foreign language learning, and "common sense needs", but also sets out the position that, "Having English as our official language simply means that for the government to act officially, it must communicate in English. It means the language of record is the English language, and that no one has a right to demand government services in any other language."[6]

Opposing viewpoints

Groups opposing 'English Only' point to civil liberties arguments and the culture of the U.S. - a multilingual nation of hundreds of languages, both indigenous and imported, with a tradition of tolerance and respect for diversity. 'English Only' is argued to violate the Fourteenth Amendment, as it might lead to legislation that would interfere with people's rights in law - perhaps bans on courtroom interpretation or bilingual voting, positions that stand outside the Equal Protection Clause. Opponents also argue that 'English Only' hinders the integration of immigrants into society, because it makes it more difficult for people who are yet to learn English to function effectively. Another point is that it perpetuates stereotyping of people who do not speak English.[7] To this could be added the claims that action is unnecessary since 82% of Americans are monolingual English speakers, and most others do learn the language anyway - in 2000, about 3.36 million people, or about 1% of the population, reported that they could not use English at all.[8] Some scholars discuss the rise of 'English Only' through identifying it as part of a wider fear that 'American values' are eroding.[9] One has branded it a form of fascism.[10]

Bilingual education

For more information, see: Bilingual education.

Since 'English Only' campaigns on what language should be used as the medium of instruction in schools and other institutions, it is involved in the debate on 'bilingual education' - the position that children whose background does not include English should be taught in their native language at the outset, moving to English over time. This is widely supported by academic research, and there is a little linguistic evidence that the alternative, 'total immersion' in English from the start, leads to higher attainment.[11]


  1. Fox News: 'Ohio Bar Owner Changes 'For Service Speak English' Sign Following Discrimination Complaint'. December 6 2006. See also Bill may push for English only: State-documents idea called rights violation (Columbus Dispatch newspaper, October 31 2005).
  2. Herald Tribune: 'Nashville mayor vetoes measure making English official language'. February 12 2007.
  3. KMBC: 'Teen Sues After Being Suspended For Speaking Spanish'. December 13 2005.
  4. U.S. English: 'Biography of Senator S.I. Hayakawa'.
  5. U.S. English: 'Misconceptions About Official English'. Accessed 10th June 2008.
  6. ProEnglish: 'Why Official English?'. Accessed 10th June 2008.
  7. American Civil Liberties Union of Florida: 'English Only'.
  8. Shin HB & Bruno R: 'Language Use and English-Speaking Ability: 2000.' Accessed 29th September 2007.
  9. Rickford (2004); Wardhaugh (2006: 368); Schmid (2001); Huntington (2004).
  10. Pullum (1987) (access requires membership).
  11. Krashen & McField (2005); Krashen (2006); Crawford (1997); Crawford (2005);

See also