U.S. Language Policy


According to the U.S Census, in three decades, no single racial or ethnic group will comprise the majority of the U.S. population. In many parts of the U.S. this reality has already arrived. Many countries—including Belgium, Switzerland, India, Bolivia, and Ethiopia—are multicultural and multilingual societies. The United States prides itself on being “a nation of immigrants,” yet it has cultivated a multicultural, monolingual society. Discrimination on linguistic grounds remains publicly acceptable in ways that other forms of discrimination are not. Indeed, language use and variation in the United States can be interpreted as a form of political allegiance, or as an indication of social, intellectual, or moral worth; it certainly can have economic consequences. In light of changing demographics, immigration, and English-only movements, it is worth considering what is at stake when we talk about language use.

Language is much more than a form of communication. Social power is achieved through strategic efforts to control language and, thereby, control not only what can be said, but also how the world can be known. While most languages have a word for “dog” there are many words that do not have a direct translation. For example, most people know the experience of making something worse while trying to fix it, but only German has a word for this (verschlimmbessern). Similarly, and sometimes with far broader importance, the cultural architecture embedded in linguistic structures are often incommensurate. Japanese, for example, is known for having an extensive system of honorifics and comparatively complex forms of politeness used to show respect; in Diné (Navajo), verbs impart much more information than action and tense in English. These are examples of linguistic realities that shape—and are shaped by—human experience. Language regards not just what can be said but also how the world—and our place in it—is known. It is not a coincidence that all forms of violence begin with a dehumanizing slur or that efforts toward cultural domination carry an enormous concern for linguistic regulation.

When we think about language as a strategic relationship of power, it becomes quite interesting to find that the United States has had policies of language suppression, but it has never had a cohesive, national language policy. There is no federal agency charged with language policymaking. However, the lack of commitment to a language policy at the Federal level has itself proven to be a form of policy. According to the U.S. Education Commission, as recently as 2013, 40 of 50 states did not have any requirements for second language acquisition. The remaining 10 had a 1 or 2 unit requirement that students could fulfill through technology proficiency, performing arts, or a foreign language. In this intellectual and social context, there is also a dearth of bilingual education in public schools to support students for whom English is not a first language. Forceful opposition to bilingual education has arisen both from within English-speaking monolingual populations as well as from within the communities that bilingual programs are intended to serve. If being bi- or multilingual is considered to be an asset in most countries, in the U.S. the term bilingual has lost its original meaning and is often synonymous with non-English proficient.

There are some federal laws regarding language use. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, several Supreme Court decisions, Executive Order 13166, and the Voting Rights Act all provide some minimal protections for linguistic minorities. However, the 21st century reality is that people in the United States who do not learn English well enough to master literacy skills face substantial economic, social, and political marginalization. Given the hardships faced by those who are not fluent English speakers, formal “English only” policies would seem to be redundant. Clearly, linguistic hegemony is powerfully enforced within the United States. Yet in the early 1980s an “official English” movement emerged in the United States. Curiously, the movement arose at a time when, according to the U.S. Census, 98 percent of the population spoke English and only 11 percent were regular speakers of a language other than English.

English-only movements in the United States must be understood as localized movements, but it would be a mistake to believe that English-only movements have succeeded as popular, grassroots movements. English-only movements have received multi-million dollar funding from right- wing, anti-immigration groups, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Pioneer Fund, and the Laurel Foundation. Most generally, English-only movements have sought to create legislation that prohibits languages other than English from being used in laws, policies, regulations, and in workplaces. For example, these and other well-funded, localized movements have advanced state laws and constitutional amendments regarding language use that range from naming English as the official language, as in Colorado, to specifying detailed policies regarding English usage, as in Florida and Arizona. Florida state legislation now requires “English only” in the workplace; in Arizona, a state constitutional amendment (Article 28), declared English as the official language of the state and specifies “English-only” requirements for a broad range of government businesses. To combat Official English-only movements, grassroots coalitions, such as English Plus, formed in the mid-1980s. However, these movements were less effective.

Given the apparent (if controversial) success of English-only movements, it is essential to ask: what problems are English-only movements attempting to address? Linguistic discrimination has been a long-standing and very effective expression of racism. Sociologist Carol Schmid argues that at the end of the 20th century, rapid increases in immigration, particularly from Mexico, the Philippines, China, Korea, and Vietnam, gave rise to debates about language that served as a proxy for racism and xenophobia. So it is not too surprising to learn that English-only movements themselves claim to be addressing “the problem” of an increasing presence of Asian and Latino immigrants. Between 1980 and 2007, the numbers of people speaking Asian languages increased by 290 percent to 2.6 million. The numbers of Spanish speakers is also increasing. The U.S. Census Bureau expects the numbers of Spanish speakers in the United States to be between 39 and 43 million by 2020—roughly 12 percent of the population. It seems unlikely that English-only movements will disappear.

Proponents of English-only movements have organized around two key questions: Would the United States be “overrun” by other cultures? Would residents of the United States be forced to learn Spanish? Concerns of being “overrun” are ironic at best, given the nation’s colonial foundations and the continued centrality of immigrant labor to the U.S. economy. As for being forced to learn Spanish—even if one ignores the numbers of Spanish speakers who were forced to learn English and become citizens of the United States—we still must ask: Why would anyone fear “having to learn” Spanish?  In a world where speaking more than one language is a distinct advantage, what is it about the American psyche that sees mandated second language acquisition as threatening?

Sociologists and sociolinguists offer several explanations. One sociological explanation addresses the fact that in a dominant society that marginalizes and exploits Spanish-speaking immigrants, Spanish has become the quotidian linguistic marker of a negative racialization. Crudely put, for many Anglos, learning Spanish not only represents a step down the social hierarchy, it places people of privilege in the potential position of being corrected by native speakers of Spanish. Imagine the gardener correcting the financial analyst’s Spanish. Socio- linguist Joshua Fishman offers another potential explanation. Fishman asserts that official English/English only movements articulate the general insecurity among the comparatively secure, the defenders of the middle class. These movements sublimate feelings among English speakers that people (whose first language is not English) are somehow taking advantage of them. Certainly other explanations are possible, but sociologists and sociolinguists widely agree that fundamentally, English-only movements are not about language. Questions of language are always questions of power. Indeed questions of language use thinly mask an entire range of racial, political, and economic hostilities.

Historical Context

Although the United States does not have an explicit Federal language policy, like all colonial expansions, the formation of the United States relied on a coherent policy of linguistic eradication. The newly arriving immigrants and their emerging government framed the destruction of indigenous cultures and languages as part of a “civilizing” campaign. The overt racism and genocide directed at indigenous peoples and cultures was evident in the violent educational policies at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries when Native children were forcibly removed from their homes to be educated in English language and culture at boarding schools. J.D. Atkins, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1885 to 1888, issued an influential (and now infamous) report in 1887 that declared Indians must be taught in English and through it should acquire shared principals, such as duty. The report went so far as to claim that the use of Native languages was detrimental to civilization. The expanding U.S. colonial empire directed cultural as well as physical violence toward all indigenous people. Throughout the late 1800s, military and business interests conspired to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy and take possession of the country. Shortly after U.S. forces overthrew Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning Hawaiian monarch, the United States banned the use of the Hawaiian language in schools. As on the mainland, violations of language restrictions were met with corporal punishment. After many insurgencies and much violence, Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1898. In 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state, but not until 1986 did the U.S. government lift the ban against using Hawaiian in schools.

As the United States expanded its empire through the 1800s, it also regulated the use of Spanish. For example, at the end of the Mexican War in 1848, the United States claimed a vast amount of Mexican territory—including what we now think of as California. California became a state in 1850, and by 1879 all official use of Spanish had ended in the state. When New Mexico (which then included what we call Arizona today) became an official territory of the United States in 1850, the region had bilingual schools, courts and legislation and, when needed, affairs were conducted through interpreters. The United States (unlike multinational states in Europe) increasingly relied on practices of assimilation and linguistic homogeneity. When New Mexico voted to accept statehood in 1906 but Arizona did not, the Senate Commission on Territories began a process of “acculturation” that, by 1910, had restricted the use of Spanish and mandated English as the language of instruction and of government in both Arizona and New Mexico. In 2010, the Arizona Department of Education was still removing teachers with “heavy accents” from the classroom. By contrast, Spanish speakers fared better in New Mexico than in Arizona (e.g., one need not speak English to vote and education is accessible regardless of immigration status).

In the United States, attitudes toward language use have long stood as proxies for racial projects. Despite a ferocious emphasis on English where Indigenous and Spanish-speaking people were concerned, very few of the early immigrants spoke English when they arrived to the continent. Consequently, the violent imposition of English upon indigenous and Spanish-speaking peoples, stands in stark contrast to the linguistic diversity that prevailed among European immigrants. For example, public records show that in the late 1700s and early 1800s the U.S. showed broad public support for schools, newspapers, and churches for French and German speakers. Carol Schmid notes that German, Italian, Polish, Norweigian, Swedish languages were used in both private and public ways; Pennsylvania, Iowa, Maryland, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Nebraska all had laws that allowed for some amount of education in German. As immigrant groups gradually assimilated to English, the persistent presence and usage of German in schools raised debates much like contemporary debates regarding the relative value of bilingual education and bilingualism in general. In 1918, “Americanization campaigns” directed toward European immigrants received both public and private funding. Eventually, English prevailed and the regular use of German, Italian, Polish, Norwegian, Swedish languages in the United States declined. However, in these cases language homogeneity was not a proxy for racialization or for cultural genocide. For these speakers, their nations of origin, both in terms of land and culture, remained intact.

Linguistic homogenization requires that people not only speak in particular ways, but also learn to perceive and to think in certain ways. In this sense, language is a signifying practice that represents particular kinds of people to themselves and others. In the public discourse of the early 20th century, the English language was made to function as a patriotic symbol of Anglo-conformity; being an English speaker became conflated with political loyalty to the United States. Strict immigration laws enacted in 1924 accompanied this discourse of linguistic patriotism—many of which were maintained until 1965.

In the United States, the English language is deployed in the service of an imagined cultural nationalism, a moral project that marginalizes linguistic minorities within its own national borders as being both culturally distinct and inferior. Even speakers of American Sign Language (ASL) are clearly marginalized in dominant U.S. society by limited access to education, employment, and cultural life. According to the Federal government, over one million people are functionally deaf and ten million people are hearing impaired. ASL’s lack of tether to a particular nation or culture means that it is not a proxy for linguistic racialization— however, neither is it recognized as a full language. It is the only language taught in disability programs, rather than in language programs. As of this writing, according to the Education Commission of the United States, universities in Michigan and Maryland are among the few to recognize ASL as meeting a second language requirement. (Still often referred to as a foreign language requirement.) Language variations are often valorized, marginalized, and misrecognized.

In the United States, people who do not speak standardized English—often because of class or regional accents—also comprise linguistic minorities that are regularly stereotyped, publicly mocked, and poorly understood. Although Black Vernacular English, Hawaiian Pidgin, Hawaiian Creole English, Cajun French, and Creole French are widely practiced in particular social and geographic contexts, within the U.S. dominant (white) culture the languages, and the people who use them, continue to be viewed as “less than.” Arguably, language is the premier signifying practice of both self and society—it is always implicated in maintaining relationships of oppression and privilege.

Language has always been a tool of colonial expansion so it is important to consider language use in U.S. territories, which remain legally distinct colonial acquisitions today: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. The United States invaded Puerto Rico and declared it as a territorial possession in 1898. Despite U.S. efforts to install English-only policies in Puerto Rico, by 1902 the Official Languages Act gave equal status to Spanish and English. However, English continued to be the language of educational instruction—instruction that also emphasized patriotic practices including saluting the U.S. flag and singing national songs.

It would be fair to say that more than 50 years of political conflict, rather than educational goals, continued to shape English/Spanish language conflicts in Puerto Rican schools. Today, Spanish is the official language of Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are educated as U.S. citizens in Spanish and schools require English as a second language. Yet the political struggles over language can be revived as long as Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory. In 2012, Senator Rick Santorum argued that Puerto Rico should be required to make English its primary language. The politicization of language is also evident in the fact that Puerto Ricans often face fierce discrimination on the mainland where they frequently are misrecognized as immigrants.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, the United States has had uneven success in establishing English linguistic hegemony. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, over 70 percent of the population in the Virgin Islands speaks only English; smaller linguistic communities include Spanish, Spanish Creole, French and French Creole. By contrast, while English and Chamorro are the official languages of Guam, slightly less than half of the population speaks only English today and driver’s license exams are given in English, Chamorro, Korean, Japanese, Yapese, Taiwanese, and Tagalog. According to the U.S. Census, although English is the official language of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, only 17 percent of the population speaks English only. Similarly, while English and Samoan are both official languages of American Samoa very few people speak only English. Without the leverage of statehood, the United State’s ability to enforce linguistic hegemony is  visibly political.

In the United States, among the many notable forms of resistance to language loss are those by indigenous peoples to revitalize their own languages through strategies that include pan-tribal institutions such as the Indigenous Language Institute, the American Indian Language Development Institute, and the Myaamia Language Project. In addition local schools and emersion programs focus on language renewal include the Native American and Alaska Native Children in School Program, Nâwahîokalani’õpu’u Laboratory School, Wopanak Language Reclamation Project, Akwesasne Freedom School, and the Athabaskan Language Development Institute an English-Navajo Language Arts Program.

In addition, nations such as the Oneida, Inupiaq, Unuktitut, Navajo, Mohawk, and Chitmacha have turned to Berlitz and the Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program to develop and revitalize language acquisition. Hawaiian and indigenous languages can now be studied at all levels in Hawaiian universities. The Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke’elikõlani College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai’i-Hilo and the at the University of Hawai’ i-Mânoa’s Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language offer programs for Master of Art degrees, doctorate degrees, and teaching certificates. Over the years, legislation and amendments to legislation offered increased preservation of indigenous languages. The Title IV, Indian Education Act (1972) amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided some opportunities for education in Native languages and local tribal control over schools for Native American students.

The important work of language renewal focuses on the (re)production of critical resources for language acquisition and is a powerful component to decoloni zing the interior lives of indigenous peoples. However, more broadly there is also a fundamental need in the United States to reconsider the ideological stance toward language acquisition and use more generally.

Returning to the initial observation that language is a strategic relation of power, the history of the United States makes clear why there has been no Federal legislation—arguably that level of enforcement has not been needed since the founding of the country. English hegemony has succeeded. Yet this success relies on more than the language eradication policies of the 1800. The lack of emphasis on, and regard for, second language acquisition in the United States implicitly underscores the primacy of English and the devaluation of other languages and cultures. The lack of a policy mandate for second language acquisition reinforces strategic relations of power by normalizing the dominance of the English language (and concomitant culture) as an ordinary aspect of daily life. By contrast, efforts to create explicit English-only policies expose the relations of power that infuse the entire system. The real horror of such movements may be not what they seek to achieve, but how they reveal what has already been achieved.

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Celine-Marie Pascale is a professor in the Department of Sociology at American University. Chanda Cook earned an MA in sociology from American University.