Lengua y Patria: The Official English Movement in America

The United States government has officially recognized a national motto (“In God We Trust”), a national anthem, a national flag, and a national bird, among other things. It has not officially recognized a national language, a national condiment, or a national sport, although there are obvious unofficial contenders for each of these(1). One of them has stirred up a significant amount of political controversy over the past two and a half decades. Why is this subject so contentious, and why has so much effort been devoted to the seemingly trivial goal of turning an unofficial symbol into an official one?


In 1983, Dr. John Tanton of Michigan and Senator S. I. Hayakawa of California founded U.S. English, an organization devoted to “preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States.” Tanton was an ophthamologist and an environmental and pro-choice activist. Hayakawa was a Canadian immigrant and former professor of English and semantics. Their organization marked the beginning of a movement in American politics to strengthen, protect, and emphasize the role of English in government, a movement often known as the “English-only movement,” although proponents prefer “Official English movement.”  It lists as its motives the unification of Americans, the reinforcement of traditional American culture, and a desire to help immigrants. Its opponents accuse it of racism and xenophobia, and its organizations and leaders have sometimes been linked to white supremacists, neo-Nazis, advocates of eugenics, and far-right demagogues.

The U.S. is not alone in lacking an official language, but it is in the minority. Among developed countries, for example, Austria, the United Kingdom, and Spain have official languages, while the Netherlands, Japan, and Germany do not. Within America, a slight majority of states have declared English their official language, although one of them, Hawaii, also lists Hawaiian as an official language. What does it mean for a state or a country to declare English its official language? Very little, really, beyond the symbolic meaning. Even in states whose official language is English, like California, government forms and services are generally available in Spanish (and, where applicable, other locally popular languages). Official English organizations often advocate formore than just declaring English the official language; for example, U.S. English recently issued press releases opposing a change to bilingual education for Spanish-speakers in Wisconsin and attacking the Missouri Attorney General for setting up a Spanish-language website. For the sake of convenience, I’ll refer to all of the movement’s goals—declaring English the official language, ending the use of Spanish by government officials, encouraging or forcing immigrants to learn English—as “officializing English.”

Assimilation and unity

One of the Official English movement’s most common themes is the use of the English language as a sign of assimilation to American identity. “The key to assimilation is speaking our common language, English,” argues ProEnglish. “Official English also has a symbolic meaning, which is very important […] there are responsibilities as well as benefits for being here. And one of those responsibilities is learning to speak the language of our country—English.” (Emphasis theirs.) These arguments have no direct relation with language as a referential device; they would apply equally well if language had no communicative purpose. Instead ProEnglish takes the index between speaking English and being American, established by their frequent association in space and time, and turns it into a symbol, a socially defined sign that makes speaking English a part of being American. It then becomes a duty for immigrants to learn English, not in order to communicate with English-speaking Americans but in order to become one of them.

Aside from the specific association of English and American identity, Official English proponents point to the unifying effect of a common language in general. “The use of a common language removes barriers of misunderstanding and helps to unify the people of this State and of the United States,” reads a piece of model legislation by ProEnglish.  Senator Hayakawa spoke eloquently on this this theme in support of a 1982 Official English amendment: “Somehow or other, within a generation or two, we have to get them all [the immigrants] together, talking to each other, electing each other to city councils, doing business with each other, buying and selling from each other, creating governments, creating societies. We can only have this unified society if we ultimately agree on a common language.” This genuine concern for the successful integration of immigrants is not the first thing that leaps to many liberals’ minds at the thought of the English-only movement, but Hayakawa seems to have truly believed that a shared language is a necessary prerequisite for intrasocietal communication and participation in communal life, both of which lead to social unity. A common language, he thought, is the basis for further commonalities.

The clash of cultures

Tanton, on the other hand, has perhaps less generous motives behind his activism. His strong environmentalism led him to support abortion rights and oppose immigration on the basis that population growth was bad for the environment. He shared this belief at the time with the Sierra Club (whose Population Committee he chaired in the early ’70s) and Zero Population Growth (where he served as president and board member for much of the ’70s). It doesn’t require a huge leap of the imagination to conjecture that Tanton’s decades-long activity in the Official English movement might be connected to his opposition to immigration; he may be less concerned with helping them than with keeping them out of the country.

Tanton resigned from U.S. English after a minor uproar caused by a memo he wrote in 1986 for WITAN IV, an Official English and anti-immigration conference, that was later leaked to the press. In this memo Tanton brought up a number of talking points regarding the immigration situation in America. Perhaps the most infamous talking point read in part, “Will Latin American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe), the lack of involvement in public affairs, etc.? What in fact are the characteristics of Latin American culture, versus that of the United States?” Others were also problematic but perhaps more interesting in their mistakes. The third talking point read, “Gobernar es poplar translates ‘to govern is to populate,’ […] In this society where the majority rules, does this hold? Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile?” Like many of the other talking points, this conflates speech communities (groups of people defined solely by the language they speak) with political bodies that can conquer or be conquered. A piece on anti-immigration website VDARE (named for Virginia Dare, the first white child born in America) repeats this conflation in its contention that an extraterrestrial visiting multilingual South Texas “might easily conclude that a conquest was taking place–that English-speakers were being conquered by Spanish-speakers.”(2)

Preservation of English

Another goal often given for efforts to officialize English is the preservation of the language, at least in its position as national language of the United States. If this goal is less prominent than some of the preceding ones, it may be because the danger to English is plainly unrealistic; as many Official English organizations point out, 97% of Americans speak English.  However, it would be safe to say that almost all Official English organizations express at some point a desire to “protect English as our common language.” In The English-Only Movement, Dennis Baron writes that some Americans “wonder whether English can survive what seems to be a massive assault on its two-century hegemony” and that Hayakawa’s proposed English Language Amendment “would establish once and for all the primacy of English, defending it against the imagined onslaught of competing languages.” Unlike some of the other professed motives of the Official English movement, the preservation and protection of the English language is not supposed to have any benefit for immigrants.

Multilingualism and apartheid

Another common Official English claim is precisely the opposite: that Official English would help immigrants by giving them incentives to learn English. ProEnglish, the organization Tanton founded after being forced out of U.S. English, argues that “multilingualism is causing a growing underclass, which is segregated and walled off into linguistic ghettos.” This evocation of forced separation seems to be a somewhat watered-down version of one of Tanton’s leaked talking points from years before, which included a not-uncommon analogy between American multilingualism and apartheid: “In Southern Africa, a White minority owns the property, has the best jobs and education, has the political power, and speaks one language. A non-White majority has poor education, jobs and income, owns little property, is on its way to political power and speaks a different language.”  Implicit in this analogy is the lamination of economic status, level of education, political identity and status, ethnic identity, and language. Since the economic, educational, and political inequality under apartheid is problematic, the multilingualism is also assumed to be a problem.

According to the “multilingualism as apartheid” theory, though some might think linguistic accommodation helps immigrants, in fact it perpetuates their separation from mainstream America. This point is made again in an article in the National Review by the director of English First: “Bilingual-education programs say to Hispanic parents: ‘your children aren’t real Americans and never will be.’ Bilingual education ensures Hispanic children will grow up to be second-class citizens because such programs keep Hispanic children from learning English when they are young and can do so most easily.”  This claim of segregation rests partly on the equation of “real Americans” with English speakers, and assumes the continued status of English as the overwhelmingly dominant language while at the same time arguing for the continuation of that status.

So why officialize English?

Lucy Tse’s Why Don’t They Learn English?: Separating Fact from Fallacy in the U.S. Language Debate includes the results of a study of congressional speeches supporting Official English amendments between 1981 and 1998.  According to the study, the most frequent type of justification given for the amendments was “English unites the country/Multilingualism is divisive,” which appeared in 13 speeches. Following that, tied for second place, were the preservation of English as the national language and “Immigrants need motivation/It’s for their own good,” with 10 each. 7 speeches mentioned the concern that immigrants are not learning English because of bilingual education, and 3 complained that immigrants were not assimilating.

The concerns displayed in these congressional speeches and the other sources mentioned above seem to fall into three broad categories. The first group are arguments that officializing English would benefit everyone; in this group we can place the role of a common language as promoter of unity and assimilation. The second group of arguments is primarily concerned with the benefit of those Americans who already speak English. The conflation of language and political-ethnic identity is responsible for the two arguments in this group: it makes Spanish speakers appear to be a threat until they learn to speak English, and it makes the preservation of English as the national language appear synonymous with the preservation of the current American identity. The last set of arguments is supposedly concerned for the welfare of the immigrants themselves: when encouraged to learn English, immigrants will no longer be segregated from the population around them, including people with whom they need to communicate in order to function well in society.

Individual and societal multilingualism

Of course, America is already moving towards a more bilingual future, in which speaking only Spanish would be less of a handicap than it currently is. It is precisely this movement that many in the Official English movement oppose, but I couldn’t be happier. On an individual level, few would dispute that bilingualism brings a host of advantages. Knowing another language opens up new countries to visit, new literatures to read, and new people to talk to, and it makes it easier to learn even more languages. True, there are costs associated with society-level bilingualism, such as the huge expense of ensuring documents are available in both languages. That’s why we should devote our efforts to making sure that our eventual society-level bilingualism, should it come to pass, is accompanied by individual-level bilingualism; in other words, we should emulate Morocco, where most people speak at least two or three of the country’s many languages (Modern Standard Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, several dialects of Berber, French, Spanish, and English, to name the most prominent) rather than Belgium, a bilingual country (trilingual, if you count the not-insignificant German-language community) which consists largely of monolingual people. Societal multilingualism will happen if it happens, but if it also provides an impetus towards individual multilingualism, the costs will be more than worth it.

There is a fair amount of evidence that we are on a path towards both societal and individual bilingualism. Spanish is the most popular foreign language in American schools, and I imagine it’s safe to say that English is the most studied language among Spanish-speaking immigrants to America. Of course, Spanish-speaking populations are concentrated regionally to some extent: according to census data from 2006, just over 75% of people in America who use Spanish as their primary language at home live in the four states that border Mexico plus Florida. More importantly, though, all major American cities have significant Spanish-speaking populations. Despite the Official English movement, the federal and many state and local governments are very good about providing Spanish-language services, and the business world has naturally chosen to speak whatever languages might best reach customers. Personally, it gladdens my heart whenever I see a bus go by with a bilingual ad on the side; that’s what the tolerant America of our future looks like to me.

Questions for commenters: Do you agree that we are moving towards both individual and societal multilingualism? If not, what do you think we are moving towards? Can you think of any valid reasons to officialize English?

(1) Ketchup, if you were wondering.

(2) VDARE is actually a worthwhile website to bookmark, since it is both extremely right-wing and in general fairly well-written and coherent. If you’re ever curious about what the people who think Bush was too far to the left think, I don’t know of a better place to turn.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


4 Responses to “Lengua y Patria: The Official English Movement in America”

  1. Finland has a minority Swedish-speaking population, which, logically enough if you know much about the history of the two countries, is on average better-off than the Finns. So it’s a bit funny, but ambitious in a good way, that the UN takes the Finnish treatment of Swedes as the model for treatment of minority populations. Every Finn, for example, is required to learn Swedish from an early age. All signs in the country read in Swedish and Finnish, and hardly any in English. I asked on occasions, do you think this was worth it? Doesn’t it seem a waste of time and something forced on you by imperial history, wouldn’t you rather learn Ancient Greek or Spanish or Pali? Unanimously, /all/ the Finns I asked, who were mostly leftists and philosophers, and knew several more than two languages, answered, no, they would like to keep it, it was part of their country to learn Swedish, and anyway, it’s nice to learn extra languages. Here, then, bilingualism becomes a nationalist symbol just as monolingualism does–presumably because of Finland’s “minoritarian” (in Deleuze’s sense) history. Whereas Official-English folks in America have picked a symbol of their nation’s culture as hegemonic, its unity over differences, the Finns, with something like Jewish humor, parade themselves in their losers’ past.

  2. Roky Erickson Says:

    In response to your first questions: I don’t see much evidence that individual multilingualism is increasing. Do you? English is the only language a person needs to succeed in America at large, and right now there’s no great benefits to speaking an additional language (thus, no incentives either.)

    Whether we’re moving towards societal multilingualism is more complex, and I’m going to flank the question. Your first commenter’s mention of Finns who speak Swedish is so irrelevant it becomes instructive. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country culturally – la Wik reliably informs us that 97.2% of the population is Finnish ethnically, and 92% primarily speaks Finnish. Speaking Swedish in Finland is sort of like learning French in a US high school – there’s no fundamental impact on the country’s cultural balance. When your commenter’s friends tell him they see learning Swedish as an important Finnish tradition, that seals the deal. In Finland, multilingualism fuels no undesirable fires.

    Not to give away the punchline, but why isn’t the US likely to move in the direction of this pleasant arrangement? Or even a tolerable arrangement like Morocco, which has its civil war totally under control? Because while what language you speak is trivial in principle, it has tremendous ramifications if you live in a culturally heterogeneous country. For instance, having bald eagles on the currency is practically arbitrary. However, if a large fraction of the population didn’t accept bald eagle money, and conducted most of their business in catamount money, the eagle ceases to be entirely symbolic. Or rather, it ceases to symbolize trivial things.

    At a minimum, language is a gateway to culture; that’s why speaking fluent Sichuanese gets you off-menu dishes at Sichuan Pavilion. I agree Stanton is worried about language as a proxy for immigration, and not unreasonably so. It’s hard for one government to rule over many cultures. Tito’s Yugoslavia wasn’t fun while it lasted, and it was even worse when it crumbled.

    But back to language. You trash the English-firsters for foisting this whole assimilation duty on the immigrants. Harshing the vibes, man. And you’re probably right that for most of its advocates “the preservation and protection of the English language is not supposed to have any benefit for immigrants”, though it probably doesn’t hurt them. What I don’t understand is why it’s wrong for Stanton et al. to pursue their own self interest. Though you suggest that a multilingual (I challenge you to distinguish this from multicultural when referring to the US) society is likely, you’re vague on the benefits. Tolerance is a great thing – check out Urumqi – but I’m hazy on why it’s a good thing to have lots of people in your country who don’t speak your language and don’t feel any great cultural connection to that country of yours. I suppose one could be magnanimous and learn Spanish preemptively, but I think most people will settle for Balkanization, or at best, Belgianization.

    In sum, I’ve argued that (1) in the US, language is right now inseparable from culture; (2) officializing English is a way of disincentivizing the riskiest kind of cultural distinction-making, and (3) there’s no reason to believe that people easily overcome linguistic differences and think of their neighbors as countrymen. Germany and the Netherlands have no national languages, and neither have had particularly enviable experiences with culturally distinct immigrants. Officializing English isn’t a substitute for assimilating our new neighbors, but it indicates awareness of the problem.

  3. Individual multilingualism is certainly increasing in America, if for no other reason than that the population of immigrants who speak English and their native language is increasing. If you, mean, though, that you don’t see any evidence that native English speakers in America are learning other languages, I don’t have any statistics but I would be surprised if they weren’t. Just from anecdotal evidence, I’ve heard about parents hiring nannies who speak other languages (Spanish, Chinese) so their kids will learn to speak them from a young age, and a lot of second-generation immigrants grow up learning their parents’ language. I certainly disagree that there aren’t large benefits to learning other languages; I listed some of those benefits in the post above (see: “a host of advantages”).

    You seem to be saying about Finland that, though it has successful societal multilingualism, it is too harmonious to be a good example, and about Morrocco that, although it also has successful societal multilingualism, it is too disharmonious to be a good example. Is it just the in-between position of peaceful ethnic diversity that can’t support societal multilingualism?

    Language can be, as you say, a gateway to culture, but it can be more than that too, to certain people at least. As I discussed in the post, for some people a group of people speaking the same language can seem like an inherently political group, but that doesn’t have to be the case. You mentioned Yugoslavia, but that was always a case of people who saw themselves as different nations trying to create a sort of federated South Slav nation. This is really just nationalism on a different scale, so it’s no surprise that national tensions were what tore them apart. What I’m advocating is multilingualism, not federated nationalism. I don’t want to forge a new North American nation out of Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans; I just want a culture where multilingual competence is the norm, not the exception. I’m not against assimilation, not at all; I just want us all to assimilate, including native English-speakers.

  4. Berlin is a pretty awesome example of generalized multilingualism. Part because the city pulls people from everywhere, part because it doesn’t get all uptight about its official language, the way Paris does, and the result is that everybody is competent in 2-4 languages and find ample opportunity to practice. One day somebody told me “You’re in the country, you could at least learn the language!” when I had trouble understanding somebody at the cash register, but he was by far the exception, and I assume he did that because he knew I was American. Buttloads of people are just speakin’ spanish or italian or french or english all over the streets… it’s very civilized, it’s the future. If only there were only cities and no countries and all the cities were like this one.

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