• IDRA Newsletter • January 1996 • 

The following talking points on the issue of an official language, or English only, are excerpts from statements by the National Association of Bilingual Education (NABE) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

English-only efforts are based on myths.

MALDEF: Supporters of making English the official language falsely assume that the primacy of English in the United States is threatened, even though over 90 percent of our country’s population speaks English. They believe that providing services in other languages diminishes the importance of English. Quite the contrary, providing multilingual services promotes participation by all persons in this country and recognizes that people who contribute to our tax base should have access to services for which they are eligible.

NABE: “English only” is a debate about new government regulations on language use, not about the importance of speaking English in the United States.

English-only laws are unnecessary.

NABE: Over 97 percent of citizens speak English, according to the U.S. Census. Research shows that today’s immigrants are learning English faster than previous generations. In Los Angeles, demand for English classes is so great that some schools run 24 hours a day and 50,000 students are on waiting lists. And more than 99.9 percent of federal documents are in English, according to the General Accounting Office.

MALDEF: Laws making English the official language do nothing to promote English acquisition. The most direct and effective means to foster English proficiency is to provide opportunities for people to do so. None of the laws currently pending before congress allocate more monies for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

English-only laws may be unconstitutional.

MALDEF: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the state of Arizona’s official English law violates the constitution. The court found the law unconstitutional [in its entirety] because it unlawfully infringed on government employee’s freedom of speech.

NABE: The Arizona law is identical to the English-only bills before Congress that would make it illegal for federal employees or documents to communicate in a language other than English. Some bills in Congress go further, clearly violating the First Amendment, by establishing a new federal preference for English in private communication between citizens.

English-only laws could dismantle bilingual education programs.

MALDEF: There are many misconceptions about the effectiveness of bilingual education programs. In discussing bilingual education, one must recognize that there are different instructional programs that fall into this broad category. Whatever the program, the goals is to teach students English and to ensure that children do not fall behind in their core academic classes. In other words, to ensure that once students are transitioned into an English-only classroom, they can compete on an equal footing in both English and academic subjects. All bilingual education programs seek to teach children English.

The debate has centered on whether certain programs are better than others and which should receive federal funding. Making English the official language could lead to the dismantling of bilingual education programs in which languages other than English are used to teach children. Federal bilingual education laws recognize that if a child does not understand English, the best way to ensure that they do not fall behind their academic core classes is to teach them those subjects in their primary language or to provide teaching assistants who help the children in their primary language. It would be a hollow achievement if a child learns to speak English, but is far behind in the academic courses. Making English the official language would eliminate a proven pedagogical method for teaching children who are not fluent in English. Thus, making English the official language would not promote English acquisition or educational achievement.

English-only laws would prompt extensive, divisive and frivolous litigation.

NABE: The proposed English-only laws would allow anyone who believes that they have been discriminated against for communicating in English to the federal government to sue in federal court. There are no documented cases of discrimination for communicating to the federal government in English. It could allow those disgruntled with government services to sue over accents or dialects spoken by federal employees.

The ideals of freedom, democracy and tolerance – not language – are the bonds that hold this country together.

NABE: This nation has remained strong and united because we share a common set of ideals and values based on the political traditions of freedom, democracy, equality and tolerance. An official federal language could not have prevented the American Civil War nor could it have prevented the current civil strife in the former Yugoslavia.

MALDEF: Scholars have unanimously concluded that language tensions are the manifestation, not the cause, of underlying social problems and that attempts to suppress language may worsen the underlying problem. For instance, the conflicts between French and English speakers in Canada – often cited by English-only advocates as an example of the supposed threat posed by multilingualism – is the result of underlying tensions for economic and political influence. This experience confirms that racial and ethnic hostility are fostered not by language diversity, but by the attempts of certain language groups to use language as a mechanism to suppress other groups.

English-only laws give government officials open license to regulate how citizens talk.

NABE: In 219 years of US history, the federal government has neither had an official language nor involved itself in regulating how people talk. By inaugurating a new and an unprecedented role for the federal government, English-only laws embolden government officials who have already twisted the law to prohibit the speaking of any language but English. In a Texas child custody case, a state Judge threatened to remove a child from custody of her mother because the mother had spoken Spanish to her daughter. The Judge equated the mother’s use of Spanish with “child abuse.” Indeed, federal regulation of language use is similar to federal regulation of religion. Just as the United States has never established an official, federal religion, in contrast to other nations, the United States would be ill-served by establishing an official, federal language.

English-only laws make government more expensive and less efficient.

NABE: As a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals noted in recently striking down the Arizona State English Only mandate, the use of a language other than English can make it easier to serve taxpayers. In the Arizona case, a bilingual state employee found it easier, quicker, and less expensive to collect medical malpractice information from claimants who were more comfortable conversing in Spanish. The Arizona English-only mandate outlaw government communication in Spanish or other languages. Federal English-only laws would outlaw communication between members of Congress and their constituents in any language but English and prohibit federal law enforcement agents from using languages other than to English to gather information on a crime.

MALDEF: Official English laws may endanger the public health because they would require emergency personnel to communicate only in English. Additionally, these laws would prohibit the posting of danger and warning signs in languages other than English, even when the persons working with hazards or in dangerous environments cannot understand English. Moreover, prohibiting doctors and nurses from speaking languages other than English or from using an interpreter would result in non-English-speaking persons ineffectively communicating their symptoms for proper diagnoses which poses a public health risk. Failure to offer bilingual services may also keep people home with illnesses or children from being immunized.

English-only laws disconnect millions of citizens from their government.

NABE: For millions of US citizens and nationals on the island of Puerto Rico, Native American reservations, or US territories in the Pacific, the right to communicate in a native language is protected by treaty or custom. English-only laws would also forbid official use of American Sign Language (ASL), preventing government communication with the hard of hearing.


MALDEF Statement, “MALDEF Opposes Official English Movement” (San Antonio, Texas: Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund). Reprinted with permission.

NABE Position Paper, “‘English-Only’ A Dangerous Solution to a Non-Existent Problem” (Washington, D.C.: National Association of Bilingual Education). Reprinted with permission.

For a copy of NABE’s petition form opposing official English, call NABE at (202) 898-1829 ext. 106.

Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]