• by Charles A. Cavazos • IDRA Newsletter • January 1996 • 

The first session of the 104th Congress last year saw the introduction of six bills that would declare English as the official language of the U.S. government. In addition, a joint resolution was introduced into the House of Representatives proposing an amendment to the US Constitution establishing English as the official language of the United States.

Each of the six bills seek to amend Title 4 of the United States Code, declaring English as the official language of the US government. Title 4 specifies, among other things, the design and display of the seal and flag of the United States. Currently there is no provision for an official language.

Language of Government Act

The bill with the most support, by far, is the Language of Government Act (HR 123). Its number of co-sponsors has grown from an original 38 to 188 since it was introduced last January by Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.). This bill would require the government to conduct its official business in English. It defines official business as “those governmental actions, documents or policies which are enforceable with the full weight and authority of the government.” Excluded from this requirement would be the teaching of foreign languages; matters of international relations, trade or commerce; actions or documents that protect the public health; and documents that utilize terms of art or phrases from languages other than English. Also excluded would be actions that protect the rights of victims of crimes or criminal defendants, though the bill says nothing about criminal suspects. The act would not pre-empt any state laws.

The bill includes the statement, “Any monetary savings derived from the enactment of this act should be used for the teaching of non-English speaking immigrants the English language.” However, no such provision can be found in the language of the amendment to Title 4, which is the purpose of the bill itself.

Calling it the right time for his bill, Rep. Emerson said on the House floor:

“HR 123 offers a balanced, sensible approach to the common language issue. This legislation states that the government has an affirmative obligation to promote the English language, elevating that goal to official capacity. At the same time, the bill seeks to set some common sense parameters on the number and type of government services that will be offered in a language other than English. We do not need nor should we want a full scale multilingual government. But, if we do not address this issue in a forward-thinking, pro-active manner, that is just what we would allow to develop.

“I want to stress that the Language of Government Act is not “English only.” It simply states that English is the language in which all official United States government business will be conducted” (Emerson, 1995).

Declaration of Official Language Act

The Declaration of Official Language Act (HR 739) also seeks to establish English as the official language of the government, but it goes much further. Introduced by Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wis.), the bill would repeal Title VII of the Elementary Secondary Education Act of 1965 (the Bilingual Education Act) as well as Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which specifies bilingual election ballot requirements. The bill would require the Immigration and Naturalization Service to enforce the established English language proficiency standard for all applicants for US citizenship and to conduct all naturalization ceremonies “entirely in English.” Unlike HR 123, this bill makes no exceptions of matters relating to the protection of public health or for the protection of victims of crimes or criminal defendants, and it pre-empts any state law that is inconsistent with the bill.

In the proposed legislation is the statement, “All United States citizens should be encouraged to read, write and speak English to the extent of their physical and mental abilities.” This appears under “Sec. 164, Duties of Citizenship.” This is the only bill that has such a section.

Regarding naturalization, Sec. 165 states, “It has been the long-standing national belief that full citizenship in the United States requires fluency in English.” On the House floor, Rep. Roth said:

“Bilingual education is a threat to (national) unity, because it doesn’t help teach children English. That’s why I introduced the Declaration of Official Language Act. In addition to declaring English our official language, HR 739 also seeks to repeal federal mandates – like bilingual education – which discourage the use of English” (Roth, 1995).

Advocates state that bilingual education is a way of learning English and assuring that children do not fall behind in the content areas while learning English. H.R. 739 has 26 cosponsors

National Language Act

The National Language Act (HR 1005) also repeals the Bilingual Education Act. Introduced by Rep. Peter King (R-NY), this bill now has 31 cosponsors It stipulates that the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs (OBEMLA) would be terminated and that any unexpended funds would be deposited in the general fund of the treasury. It would provide assistance for transition, stating:

“During the one-year period beginning on the date of the enactment of this act, the Secretary of Education may assist local educational agencies in the transition of children enrolled in programs assisted under the Bilingual Education Act to special alternative instructional programs that do not make use of native language of the student.”

Further, the bill would repeal bilingual election requirements and requirements regarding congressional findings of voting discrimination against language minorities and prohibition of English-only elections. Naturalization ceremonies where the oath of allegiance is administered would have to be conducted “solely in English.”

An exception unique to the National Language Act is the allowance of the government to provide interpreters for persons over 62 years of age.

In his introductory remarks, Rep. King stated the reason he offered this legislation:

“For the past 25 years, our social engineers in Washington have actually been encouraging people not to learn English. We have billions of dollars being spent on bilingual education. We have citizenship ceremonies being conducted in languages other than English. We have signs in government buildings in languages other than English” (King, 1995).

Rep. King concluded by saying that he would collaborate with the sponsors of similar bills “so that we can work together to restore the American dream of all immigrants and allow them to become part of American society.”

In the Senate

The Language of Government Act (S 356) is the Senate version of HR 123. The other, S 175, introduced by Sen. Richard Shelby (D-Ala.), has little to distinguish it from S 356 (including its name).

The concurrent resolution introduced by Rep. Emerson (HR 6) encourages citizens to maintain one common language as well as other native languages, but it does not seek to make English the official language of the government. In fact, HR 6 does not seek to make or change any law.

Constitutional Amendment

The most far-reaching legislation of all is a joint resolution that proposes an amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) introduced HJ Res 109 in September of 1995. It would make English the official language not only of the government, but also of the whole United States, pre-empting any state or local laws. The proposed amendment states:


“Section 1. The English language shall be the official language of the United States. As the official language, the English language shall be used for all public acts including every order, resolution, vote or election, and for all records and judicial proceedings of the government of the United States and the governments of the several states.

“Section 2. The Congress and the states shall enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Broadly written, it is difficult to say how great an impact it would have on the country.

Interestingly, none of the proposed bills go by the name of “English only.” Rep. Emerson went as far as to deny on the House floor that his proposals were English-only bills. But it is clear to advocates that the legislation reviewed above clearly intends to make English the only language of the United States government.

Ironically, HR 739 and HR 345 provide for legal redress to anyone who feels he or she has not been served in English. Opponents of English only state that the rights of the few who do not speak English, with some exceptions, will not be served if any of the considered bills is passed into law. Their rights could be said to be valued less than any “recapture of unexpended funds.”


King, Peter. Remarks on the floor of the House of Representatives (US Congress, February 21, 1995).

Emerson, Bill. Remarks on the floor of the House of Representatives (US Congress, January 4, 1995).

Roth, Toby. Remarks on the floor of the House of Representatives (US Congress, December 18, 1995).

Charles Cavazos is a computer specialist in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. 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.]