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The English-Only Movement Debate


English-only debate has started a political debate in the US over the issue of multiculturalism and national identity. 28 states have passed the English-only law however; the law has not been accepted by the House and the Senate even after numerous proposals to amend the constitution. This article discusses both the sides of the English-only debate and the laws related to it.

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Language has assumed an important position in the political arena in the United States. Politicking has been rampant in the ardent desire of many to make English the official language of the US. The English-only movement is a political movement, which aspires to make English the only language used in government operations. The English-only movement had started in the early twentieth when the US experienced the biggest surge of immigration (Phillips, 1997). In the 1980s, 23 states, “from California through much of the West to the entire South” (p. 42) declared English their official as their official language. The preachers of English-only advocate the melting pot theory. They believe multicultural existence in the US has become a success because people from everywhere come here and assume a common identity, which is assumed with English (Phillips, 1997). This movement has come up in various times of American history in unrelated manner. This paper enumerates a few of these unrelated events and investigates into how similar or dissimilar they are in their objective and pursuit.


In the 1980s, Senator Hayakawa proposed to amend the US Constitution to declare English the official language of the country. This stirred quite a controversy and stirred a political debate relating to “America’s cultural and linguistic identity and on the language rights of linguistic minorities” (Brandes, 2009, p. 8). The English-only and Official English Movement has assumed some success in state legislative with 28 states granting some official status to English but the matter has been pending in both the House and the Senate (Brandes, 2009).

Many legal battles have evolved in this tumult about language and many laws have been passed. One such instance is a 1988 law passed by the Arizona voters who declared that English was the official language of the state and non-English using workers could be prosecuted (Collings, 1997). This law was contested against by a state worker who used Spanish in her dealing with the clients. However, the Federal Court and the lower court held the law unconstitutional. The Supreme Court held the judgment of the lower court effective, make the English only law void.

In the recent time, the language debate in the US has concentrated on the Spanish speaking population. Language rights have been recognized in the US for various other groups like that of the state of Hawaii, Native Americans, commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and Guam. However, it is believed that these languages did not threaten to change the dominance of English in the US. Nevertheless, the case with Spanish is different. The reason behind this is “the growing Latino/a population in the United States, which is expected to reach 25% of the total population by 2050.” (Brandes, 2009, p. 30) However, the second-generation Hispanic immigrants have problem with English, which is often caused due to bilingualism.

In 1995, five amendments were proposed to make English as the official language of the US (English-Only Laws, 2005). The advocates of English only laws have proposed the State must stop usage of any other language other than English in all instances and people not abiding by the law may be prosecuted. Is the English-only law is implemented; it would affect services like health, job opportunity, education and social welfare. This law applies primarily to government operations however; such laws may also be enacted upon private establishments. The proponents of English-only advocates have opposed to the usage of multilingual operators in telephone call centers and multilingual directories. However, their greatest argument is that this will ensure unification of the US.

In certain cases, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court to allow English to be the only language to be used in workplace. For instance, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Justice Department “led an amicus curiae brief on June 1, arguing that the Court should hear the case because of errors in the decision of the 9th Circuit. The appeals court reversed a district court’s summary judgment holding that an English-only work rule, put in place by Spun Steak Co., had discriminatory impact on Hispanic employees, and that the rule was improper because the plaintiffs had proposed a number of less burdensome alternatives to the English-only rule.” (EEOC, 1994) Thus they pointed out that if this law is implemented it will contradict Title VII of the employment discrimination act and EEOC Act.

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In 1998, California made English its official language when the state is expected to have a Hispanic majority (Marshall, 1998). The English only received 61 percent vote and the voters decided to do away with bilingualism known as Proposition 227. However, it received no support from the governor, the President and the courts. A similar situation arose in New Mexico too (USA Today, 2007).


English-only debate has assumed new colors recently and has gained a lot of political and media attention. However, there are supporters for the same, but the law is enforced will violate many of the historical law, which has been upheld by the US constitution like the EEOC Act and Title VII. Therefore, this law has not yet been enforced in the country even though it has gained affiliation in some states.


Brandes, T. (2009). Rethinking Equality: National Identity And Language Rights In The United States. Texas Hispanic Journal Of Law & Policy 15(7) , 7-50.

Collings, A. (1997). Justices Skeptical Of English-Only Law.

EEOC. (1994). EEOC Disappointed In Supreme Court Decision Not To Hear ‘Speak-English-Only’ Work Rule Case. Web.

English-Only Laws. (2005). West’s Encyclopedia of American Law.

Marshall, A. (1998). California votes for English-only schooling.

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Phillips, A. (1997). The English-only debate. Maclean’s 110(18) , p. 42.

USA Today. (2007). Richardson: English-only debate ‘bow’ to front-runners.

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