American Civil Liberties Union Briefing Paper Number 6
From its inception, the United States has been a multilingual nation. At
the time of the nation's founding, it was commonplace to hear as many as
20 languages spoken in daily life, including Dutch, French, German and
numerous Native American languages. Even the Articles of Confederation
were printed in German, as well as English. During the 19th and early
20th centuries, the nation's linguistic diversity grew as successive waves
of Europeans immigrated to these shores and U.S. territory expanded to
include Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the Phillipines.
Just as languages other than English have always been a part of our
history and culture, debate over establishing a national language dates
back to the country's beginnings. John Adams proposed to the Continental
Congress in 1780 that an official academy be created to "purify,
develop, and dictate usage of," English. His proposal was rejected as
undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty.
Nonetheless, restrictive language laws have been enacted periodically
since the late 19th century, usually in response to new waves of
immigration. These laws, in practice if not in intent, have punished
immigrants for their foreignness and violated their rights.
In the early 1980s, again during a period of concern about new
immigration, a movement arose that seeks the establishment of English as
the nation's official language. The "English Only" movement promotes the
enactment of legislation that restricts or prohibits the use of languages
other than English by government agencies and, in some cases, by private
businesses. The movement has met with some success, "English Only" laws
having been passed in several states. And, for the first time in the
nation's history, an English Language Amendment to the Constitution has
The ACLU opposes "English Only" laws because they can abridge the rights
of individuals who are not proficient in English, and because they
perpetuate false stereotypes of immigrants and non-English speakers. We
believe, further, that such laws are contrary to the spirit of tolerance
and diversity embodied in our Constitution. An English Language Amendment
to the Constitution would transform that document from being a charter of
liberties and individual freedom into a charter of restrictions that
limits, rather than protects, individual rights.
Here are the ACLU's answers to some questions frequently posed by the
public about "English Only" issues.
What is an "English Only" law?
"English Only" laws vary. Some state statutes simply declare English as
the "official" language of the state. Other state and local edicts limit
or bar government's provision of non-English language assistance and
services. For example, some restrict bilingual education programs,
prohibit multilingual ballots, or forbid non-English government services
in general -- including such services as courtroom translation or
multilingual emergency police lines.
Where have such laws been enacted?
Sixteen states have "English Only" laws, and many others are considering
such laws. In some states, the laws were passed decades ago during
upsurges of nativism, but most were passed within the last few years. The
"English Only" states are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado,
Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska,
North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
What are the consequences of "English Only" laws?
Some versions of the proposed English Language Amendment would void almost
all state and federal laws that require the government to provide services
in languages other than English. The services affected would include:
health, education and social welfare services, job training, translation
assistance to crime victims and witnesses in court and administrative
proceedings; voting assistance and ballots, drivers' licensing exams, and
Passage of an "English Only" ordinance by Florida's Dade County in 1980,
barring public funding of activities that involved the use of languages
other than English, resulted in the cancellation of all multicultural
events and bilingual services, ranging from directional signs in the
public transit system to medical services at the county hospital.
Where basic human needs are met by bilingual or multilingual services, the
consequences of their elimination could be dire. For example, the
_Washington Times_ reported in 1987 that a 911 emergency dispatcher was
able to save the life of a Salvadoran woman's baby son, who had stopped
breathing, by coaching the mother in Spanish over the telephone to
administer mouth-to-mouth and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation until the
Do "English Only" laws affect only government services and programs?
"English Only" laws apply primarily to government programs. However, such
laws can also affect private businesses. For example, several Southern
California cities have passed ordinances that forbid or restrict the use
of foreign languages on private business signs.
Some "English Only" advocates have opposed a telephone company's use of
multilingual operators and multilingual directories, Federal
Communications Commission licensing of Spanish-language radio stations,
and bilingual menus at fast food restaurants.
Who is affected by "English Only" laws?
"English Only" campaigns target primarily Latinos and Asians, who make up
the majority of recent immigrants. Most language minority residents are
Spanish-speaking, a result of the sharp rise in immigration from Latin
America during the mid-1960s.
While the overwhelming majority of U.S. residents -- 96 percent -- are
fluent, approximately ten million residents are not fluent in English,
according to the most recent census.
How do "English Only" laws deprive people of their rights?
The ACLU believes that "English Only" laws are inconsistent with the Equal
Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. For example, laws that
have the effect of eliminating courtroom translation severely jeopardize
the ability of people on trial to follow and comprehend the proceedings.
"English Only" laws interfere with the right to vote by banning bilingual
ballots, or with a child's right to education by restricting bilingual
instruction. Such laws also interfere with the right of workers to be
free of discrimination in workplaces where employers have imposed "speak
English only" rules.
In 1987, the ACLU adopted a national policy opposing "English Only" laws
or laws that would "characterize English as the official language in the
United States...to the extent that [they] would mandate or encourage the
erosion" of the rights of language minority persons.
What kinds of language policies were adopted with regard to past generations
Our nation was tolerant of linguistic diversity up until the late 1800s,
when an influx of Eastern and Southern Europeans, as well as Asians,
aroused nativist sentiments and prompted the enactment of restrictive
language laws. A 1911 Federal Immigration Commission report falsely
argued that the "old" Scandinavian and German immigrants had assimilated
quickly, while the "new" Italian and Eastern European immigrants were
inferior to their predecessors, less willing to learn English, and more
prone to political subversion.
In order to "Americanize" the immigrants and exclude people thought to be
of the lower classes and undesirable, English literacy requirements were
established for public employment, naturalization, immigration and
suffrage. The New York State Constitution was amended to disfranchise
over one million Yiddish-speaking citizens. The California Constitution
was similarly amended to disfranchise Chinese, who were seen as a threat
to the "purity of the ballot box."
Ironically, during the same period, the government sought to "Americanize"
Native American Indian children by taking them from their families and
forcing them to attend English-language boarding schools, where they were
punished for speaking their indigenous languages.
The intense anti-German sentiment that accompanied the outbreak of World
War I prompted several states, where bilingual schools had been
commonplace, to enact extreme language laws. For example, Nebraska passed
a law in 1919 prohibiting the use of any other language than English
through the eighth grade. The Supreme Court subsequently declared the law
an unconstitutional violation of due process.
Today, as in the past, "English Only" laws in the U.S. are founded on
false stereotypes of immigrant groups. Such laws do not simply disparage
the immigrants' native languages but assault the rights of the people who
speak the languages.
Why are bilingual ballots needed since citizenship is required to vote,
English literacy is required for citizenship, and political campaigns are
largely conducted in English?
Naturalization for U. S. citizenship does not require English literacy for
people over 50, and/or who have been in the U. S. for 20 years or more.
Thus, there are many elderly immigrant citizens whose ability to read
English is limited, and who cannot exercise their right to vote without
bilingual ballots and other voter materials. Moreover, bilingual campaign
materials and ballots foster a better informed electorate by increasing
the information available to people who lack English proficiency.
Doesn't bilingual education slow immigrant children's learning of English,
in contrast to the "sink or swim" method that was used in the past?
The primary purpose of bilingual programs in elementary and secondary
schools, which use both English and a child's native language to teach all
subjects, is to develop proficiency in English and, thus, facilitate the
child's transition to all-English instruction. Although debate about
this approach continues, the latest studies show that bilingual education
definitely enhances a child's ability to acquire the second language.
Some studies even show that the more extensive the native language
instruction, the better students perform all around, and that the
bilingual method engenders a positive self-image and self-respect by
validating the child's native language and culture.
The "sink or swim" experience of past immigrants left more of them
underwater than not. In 1911, the U. S. Immigration Service found that 77
percent of Italian, 60 percent of Russian, and 51 percent of German
immigrant children were one or more grade levels behind in school
compared to 28 percent of American-born white children. Moreover, those
immigrants who did manage to "swim" unaided in the past, when agricultural
and factory jobs were plentiful, might not do so well in today's
"high-tech" economy, with its more rigorous educational requirements.
But won't "English Only" laws speed up the assimilation of today's immigrants
into our society and prevent their isolation?
In fact, contrary to what "English Only" advocates assume, the vast
majority of today's Asian and Latino immigrants are acquiring English
proficiency and assimilating as fast as did earlier generations of
Italian, Russian and German immigrants. For example, research studies
show that over 95 percent of first generation Mexican Americans are
English proficient, and that more than 50 percent of second generation
Mexican Americans have lost their native tongue entirely.
In addition, census data reveal that nearly 90 percent of Latinos five
years old or older speak English in their households. And 98 percent of
Latinos surveyed said they felt it is "essential" that their children
learn to read and write English "perfectly ." Unfortunately, not enough
educational resources are available for immigrants -- over 40,000 are on
the waiting list for over-enrolled adult English classes in Los Angeles.
"English Only" laws do not increase resources to meet these needs.
The best insurance against social isolation of those who immigrate to our
nation is acceptance -- and celebration -- of the differences that exist
within our ethnically diverse citizenry. The bond that unites our nation
is not linguistic or ethnic homogeneity but a shared commitment to
democracy, liberty, and equality.
A C L U
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