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
l9th 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
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 been proposed. 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
Here are the ACLU's answers to some questions frequently asked 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 and translation assistance to crime victims
and witnesses in court and administrative proceedings; voting
assistance and ballots; drivers' licensing exams, and AIDS-prevention
education. 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 eliminating those services
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 cardiopulmonary resuscitation until the paramedics arrived. **
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 in English, approximately ten million residents are not
fluent, 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 of immigrants?
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
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 immigrant's 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
** Doesn't bilingual education slow immigrant children's learning of
English, in contrast to the "sink or swim" method 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
The American Civil Liberties Union
132 West 43rd Street
New York, N.Y. 10036
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