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The Team

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"The Debate Over English Only" by The National Education Association

U.S. English Foundation and U.S. English, Inc.

ACLU Briefing Paper on English Only


Making a Difference: English Only? No!


Apache. Cherokee. Cheyenne. Chickasaw. Lakhota. Navajo. Shoshone. These are just a few of the Native American languages that were spoken in what is now the United States. This was a multilingual country long before land was forcibly and violently taken from the Native Americans and colonized by Europeans. And throughout its history, the United States has remained a multilingual country.

As the National Education Association states: "In early American history, two languages often co-existed. The Continental Congress printed a number of documents, including the Articles of Confederation in German and English. An 1837 Pennsylvania law required school instruction in both German and English. In 1839, German-speaking, French-speaking, and Spanish-speaking parents in Ohio, Louisiana, and New Mexico used bilingual education. And California, which was officially bilingual for 30 years, printed its first state constitutional proceedings in both Spanish and English."

The fact is that the United States has no official language. English is not the official language. But lately there has been a strong movement to make English the official language of the U.S.

Why English Only?
According to U.S. English, Inc., an organization dedicated to the "English Only"movement, making English the official language will unite the people of the U.S. Their reasons for this English only position are: "Declaring English the official language is essential and beneficial for the U.S. government and its citizens. Official English unites Americans, who speak more than 329 languages (1990, U.S. Census), by providing a common means of communication; it encourages immigrants to learn English in order to use government services and participate in the democratic process; and it defines a much-needed common sense language policy." They also believe that "official English empowers immigrants." U.S. English would like "official government business at all levels must be conducted solely in English."

Some Background
Throughout its history, there has been a debate over the national language of the United States. Back in 1780, John Adams wanted to create an official academy devoted to promoting and dictating the use of English. According to the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), his proposal was rejected by the Continental Congress as "undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty".

In the 19th century, restrictive language laws were used to prevent English-speaking African Americans from voting. The Jim Crow laws (laws that enforced segregation in the South) made literacy a requirement for voting. It wasn't until the 1960s that African Americans won the right to vote. In California, the second constitutional convention ratified the state's first English Only provisions.

As you can see, these laws were used to prevent people from exercising their rights as citizens of the U.S. Despite the unfairness of such language laws, some states have laws that prevent funding programs or services if a non-English language is used. There have even been various English Language Amendments proposed by Congress and organizations such as U.S. English, Inc.

Reasons Against English Only
The National Education Association (NEA) succinctly states: "The English Language Amendment is the wrong remedy for whatever of America's social ills it tries to solve -- for five reasons. It ignores our country's civil rights tradition; it fails to promote the integration of language minority citizens into the American mainstream; it neglects the need for American merchants to communicate with foreign markets; it restricts the government's ability to reach all citizens; and it raises Constitutional concerns." It is an attempt to disenfranchise minority citizens; it promotes divisiveness and hostility toward those whose first language is not English.

The ACLU also states that "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."

What You Can Do
Find out if your state or county has English Only laws. What does it state? Some statutes just say that English is the official language of the state while others don't allow the government to conduct any of its services in any language other than English. If your state has a restrictive English only law, contact your state representative and tell them why you are against that law. Start a petition at your school that states you are against this law and why. Get students, teachers and parents to sign it and send it to your city council, mayor, state legislator, representative, and senator.

Find out where your state's representatives and senators stand on the English Language Amendment. Let them know if you support or oppose their position.

Get the word out: Create a Web page about the issue of English as the official language. Write an email message about your position on the English Only movement and send it to people you know. Make a pamphlet in English on one side and another language on the other. This could be a collaborative project with your friends, other students and foreign-language teachers.



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