The English Only Debate Running head: english only debate

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The English Only Debate

Layne Smith

Grand Canyon University

Instructor: Dr. Rollen Fowler

ESL 523 / English Language Teaching Foundations and Methods


July 30, 2008


This paper describes some of the issues relating to the proponents and opponents to the English only debate. It is an argument that is deeply rooted into the cultural history of the United States. The proponents of English only laws view the spread of multiculturalism in schools, aided and abetted by the local and federal government through the printing of various language ballots as the beginning of the Balkanization of American culture where the spread of other languages will outstrip the use of English is many parts of the country. The opponents of English only laws, which also tend to support multicultural education view the issues within the terms of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and view it as a needed way to help new immigrants through the acculturation process.

The proponents of the English only debate frame their argument mostly around the concept of national cohesion, such as the fear that was brought about by the Francophone separatist movement that swept through Quebec in Canada that pitted the French language and culture against the Anglo-Canadian Federation of the 1970’s. The events in Canada at the time galvanized a fear of a multicultural society, which could result in the balkanization of the United States if left unimpeded. The proponents of the English only debate also have used the additional costs of having to produce multiple language ballots as another reason to rail against local and state governments that do not support English only initiatives. The opponents to the English only debate consider it to be a reaffirmation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which adhere to the belief that the language of an individual is their cultural identity and it should not be abridged. The funding of educational institutions is not to deny fair access to educational opportunities such as providing support to students whose spoken language may be other than English.

There is also some confusion about what the term bilingual means. The opponents of bilingual education or who support English only legislation view bilingual meaning speaking another language in lieu of English. It is viewed in terms of embracing other cultures values and somehow disinheriting American values in the process. Conversely, the proponents of bilingual education view it as a necessary program to support the transition from an immigrant’s cultural language into learning mainstream English. Because of economic necessity many of these émigrés will learn English through the normal acculturation process that all newly arrived Americans have experienced for the last three hundred years. And for many government leaders bilingual education is a reaffirmation of the leadership role the U.S. should take in the world by creating a citizenry that is knowledgeable of other peoples languages and culture.

The crux of the argument against bilingual education or stated differently, in favor of laws that support English only laws is based mostly on cultural cohesion. The cultural history of the United States is replete with examples of prior immigrant groups jealously protecting their own ethnicity from newly arrived émigrés. Eventually, some of these same groups, the Germans for example, would find their own peculiar niche and develop their own culture within the United States. As an example, Amish settlements founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio is an offset of old German culture. Amish schools in Holmes County, Ohio are counted as one of the “100 different languages spoken by 26,500 limited English proficient students in Ohio schools (Lavin-Crerand, 2006).” The reaction to the émigrés and their culture is often marked with the language they speak and becomes the source of derision and divisiveness. However, it is also racial. For example the reaction of many communities to the re-settlement of the Vietnamese and Haitian refugees of the mid-1970 was met with more resistance than the re-settlement of Russian immigrants into the Brighton Beach Area of New York which was rarely mentioned in the U.S. news media.

The 1970’s was the beginning of the English only movement in the United States as stated by Dicker, in reference to Huddleston in 1983 when he stated that “for the last fifteen years” there has been resistance and antagonism toward “our historic language” the “melting pot philosophy” that has assimilated immigrants “into the American mainstream (Dicker, 1996)”. This was echoed by the idiosyncratic linguist and former Senator from California, S. I. Hayakawa, who in 1985 was lamenting about the publishing of the first Spanish-language Los Angeles Yellow Pages telephone directory. The supporters of English only laws view the federal government not doing enough to discourage the use of cultural languages in official government business such as overseeing elections. The proponents point-out that “in 375 jurisdictions in 21 states, the federal government still requires that ballots be printed in languages other than English (Dicker, 1996).”

At the grassroots level, according to Pyle, there is some evidence that bilingual education may not be serving its intended population. She reported about the dissatisfaction of the parents of children attending the Ninth Street School, a Los Angeles Unified campus near downtown's skid row, “where nine in 10 students do not speak English. In 1996 only six students, about 1%, mastered enough English to test out of the school's special bilingual classes (Pyle, 1996).” This prompted one concerned parent to say: "A lot of us want our kids to learn Spanish so they can write to their grandpas," Lenin Lopez said in Spanish. "But I want my children to learn English so they won't have the problems that I've had (Pyle, 1996)”.

Both the presumptive nominees for the Democrat and Republican Parties for President of the United States, Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain both view that a bilingual society is important. Senator Obama states that for “America's continued leadership in the world” is by “our capacity to communicate across boundaries and across borders (CNN, 2008)”. Senator John McCain wrote that “to reject a native language as a tool for teaching as well as enriching our national heritage makes learning all the more difficult and makes us a poorer nation (Krikorian, 2008)”.

In 1986 when California passed its official English law, there were an estimated 40,000 people in Los Angeles County on waiting lists for English classes. In 1991 Governor Pete Wilson of California scraped plans to put $65 million of Federal monies into English proficiency classes. This resulted in the protest of 2,500 Mexican-Americans who, as one leader described the protest as “wanting to participate in the economy of the greatest state in the nation (Dicker, 1996)”. The dominance of English is already well-established, especially by non-native speakers of English. It is used in an official capacity in over forty countries. Therefore, many immigrants already know that full integration in American society requires their ability to speak English. No one wants to rely on their own language or have to seek out translation services for basic services such as shopping, banking, doctor’s visits, or having a conference with their child’s classroom teacher.

The effort to discourage bilingual election ballots is an effort to discourage immigrants with a minimal knowledge of English from participating in the democratic process. Federal laws were enacted protecting the use of bilingual ballots in districts that have large populations of non English speakers. As a society we value literacy as a passport to full participation in American society; but not use mastery of the English language as a qualification for citizenship. The costs associated with bilingual voting is no more onerous than voter registration drives, providing wheelchair access to polling areas, providing special Braille ballots for blind voters, or for providing absentee or mail-in balloting for many special and general elections.

It is my view that the English only debate is a reaction against the threat to national cohesion that many adherents believe would be the result if multiculturalism taught in schools and supported by the U.S. Department of Education is not abated. The argument is wrapped in many flavors depending upon what the perceived threat is at the moment. In the 1970’s it was seen in terms of national identity and culture, in reaction to the possibility of French Canada splitting away from the Canadian Federation. Today, it is viewed in costs of providing education to illegal immigrants and that local government should not be using taxpayer money to be printing ballots in various languages. Bilingual education is important for the future of the United States. It is necessary to identify and provide services to all children who enter the school system, regardless of their cultural language, to make available the education that is expected to make every child in the United States capable of fulfilling their potential.


Cable Network News (CNN). (2008). “Excerpt of the transcript of the debate between Democratic presidential candidates Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on February 21, 2008 at the University of Texas in Austin.” Retrieved on July 3, 2008, from

Dicker, Susan J. (1996). Ten Official English Arguments and Counter Arguments. Retrieved on July 3, 2008, from

Krikorian, Mark. (2008). John McCain, Multiculturalist, Immigration is just one problem. National Review Online, January 24, 2008. Retrieved on July 3, 2008, from

Lavin-Crerand, Mary. (2006). ESL Presentation. Dr. Crerand’s lecture before EDCI 663, Intervention Literacy, Ashland University, Columbus, Ohio April 10, 2006.

Pyle, Amy. (1996). “Bilingual Schooling is Failing, Parents Say” Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, January 16, 1996. Retrieved on July 3, 2008, from

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