Language Loyalties

English Plus:
Responding to English Only


By Mary Carol Combs





Mary Carol Combs (Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1995) formerly served as director of the English Plus Information Clearinghouse in Washington, D.C., and as director of the English Plus project of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

English Plus emerged from the language battles of the 1980s, a philosophy of inclusion and openness toward linguistic minority groups. While acknowledging the importance of English proficiency in this country, it advocates the preservation of other languages and cultures. As an alternative to English Only, it has attracted the attention of language educators, community leaders, politicians of varying views, business executives, and grass-roots activists. Coalitions throughout the United States have embraced English Plus as an approach to counter local, state, and national campaigns for Official English. Meanwhile, a number of states and municipalities have passed resolutions endorsing the principles of English Plus.<1>

So far, what have been the results? How effective has English Plus proved as a strategy for defeating English Only legislation? How has English Plus influenced voters' understanding of Official English initiatives? What is the future of English Plus as a viable response to the growing xenophobia in North America? This article will attempt to answer these questions, tracing the origin and evolution of English Plus, analyzing its political role, and discussing some of the issues surrounding a new and sometimes confusing concept.

English Plus, though commonly identified with opposition to the English Only movement, initially appeared in another context. It was conceived as a reaction to attacks on bilingual education by then-Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. In a September 1985 speech, Bennett declared that "we have lost sight of the goal of learning English as the key to equal educational opportunity." Shortly thereafter, a Miami-based civil rights organization, the Spanish-American League against Discrimination (SALAD) issued a detailed response to Bennett. This document would become a blueprint for the English Plus approach to combating language restrictionism. Its authors wrote:

    We fear that Secretary Bennett has lost sight of the fact that English is a key to equal educational opportunity, necessary but not sufficient. English by itself is not enough. Not English Only, English Plus! ...

    Bennett is wrong. We won't accept English Only for our children. We want English plus. English plus math. Plus science. Plus social studies. Plus equal educational opportunities. English plus competence in the home language. Tell Bennett to enforce bilingual education and civil rights laws you enacted, or tell the President he cannot do his job. English Plus for everyone!<2>

The statement emphasized the empowering aspects of knowing a second language and celebrated the contribution that language-minority groups have made to many fields, including international trade and commerce, diplomacy, and the military.

SALAD and the League of United Latin American Citizens began to use the term English Plus to symbolize support for bilingual education, as the Reagan Administration stepped up its attacks on the program. Also, they began to promote the idea as a policy alternative to English Only as a way to highlight the importance of second language skills for native and non-native English speakers alike. Editorial writers, professional organizations, legislators, and initially, even some proponents of Official English, spoke out in favor of English Plus.<3> Since 1985 activists in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, Washington, Texas, and Florida have formed English Plus coalitions to promote expanded opportunities to learn English and foreign languages. Meanwhile, other coalitions have stressed the need to defend and extend minority language rights and services. Despite these differences in emphasis, these two responses share the objective of defeating English Only measures wherever they appear.

With this common goal in mind, in early 1987 a diverse group of organizations and individuals met in Washington, D.C., to discuss the need to centralize information on language rights and to develop language policy alternatives. And so, the English Plus Information Clearinghouse (EPIC) was established in October 1987 as a coalition of approximately thirty organizations under the sponsorship of the National Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship Forum and the Joint National Committee for Languages. EPIC's goal was threefold: to foster informed debate on language policy in the United States; to produce greater public awareness of the English Only movement; and to promote positive, alternative policies. English Plus proponents were united in rejecting the divisiveness of the English Only movement and warning of its threats to civil rights and freedom of speech. They emphasized the need for limited-English-proficient populations to acquire the language as an economic and social necessity. Also, they stressed the importance of multiple language skills for the future well-being of the nation, citing their importance in international commerce, diplomacy, and national security.

Since the EPIC statement of purpose was drafted, a wide variety of individuals and organizations have embraced the concept of English Plus. In the process they have defined the term to appeal to their own constituencies. Some have focused more on the English, and others more on the Plus. Stated another way, there has been a tension between the strategies of advocating expanded opportunities for second-language education and of defending language rights, for example, freedom to maintain minority cultures, equal access to public services, and guarantees against language-based discrimination. These different approaches became apparent during efforts to defeat Official English at the polls.

In November 1988 voters in Arizona, Colorado, and Florida considered state constitutional amendments to declare English their official language. These campaigns were aggressively waged and financed by U.S. English, the most influential national group promoting Official English. The amendments passed easily in Colorado and Florida, while Arizona's Proposition 106, the most restrictive of the three, was approved by just under 11,000 votes, a margin of less than one percent. Predictably, public concern about the effect of Official English on multilingual services by government led to organized opposition in each state. Such coalitions sprang up relatively early in the Arizona and Colorado campaigns (approximately a year before the elections), and a Florida group was organized in the summer of 1988. Working primarily through EPIC, these coalitions established contact with one another and with other opponents of the English Only movement.

Leading the opposition to Proposition 106 was a coalition calling itself Arizona English (a bit confusing for an organization opposed to Official English). Composed of a cross-section of community, political, business, and cultural groups, Arizona English countered the proposed amendment with one of its own. Its ballot measure would have required the state legislature to "take the steps necessary to provide the opportunity to learn and be proficient in the English language," while guaranteeing the "right and freedom to learn and use other languages." Arizona English was the only coalition opposing English Only that adopted the counter-initiative strategy. The group explained its rationale in an early press release:

    Our position is that all Arizonans should be proficient in English and our approach is a positive one to the problem of the lack of English literacy. We think Arizona's national image has suffered enough and we don't want to further that reactionary image.<4>

Also, it concentrated primarily on the need to expand opportunities for English acquisition rather than on the potential termination of bilingual services under Proposition 106. Arizona English volunteers managed to gather almost 90,000 of the 130,000 signatures needed to place the measure on the ballot. (Meanwhile, Arizonans for Official English, which received 98 percent of its budget from the U.S. English Legislative Task Force in Washington, D.C. paid professional petition circulators up to $1 for each signature.) State Representative Armando Ruiz, a leader of Arizona English, then proposed legislation to place the initiative on the ballot, but it failed by one vote in the Arizona Senate.

In the fall of 1988, Arizona English reorganized itself into the No on 106 Committee and began to focus on the punitive, discriminatory aspects of Official English. Unlike propositions in the other states, which were vague about their intentions, the Arizona measure stated bluntly: "This State and all political subdivisions of this State shall act in English and no other language." And so, it was perhaps easier to convince voters about the dangers of Official English in Arizona than in Florida or Colorado. No on 106 produced some of the most hard-hitting literature of the three state campaigns, as well as a controversial television spot that compared English Only intolerance to Nazi atrocities. The committee's commentary about the xenophobic nature of the English Only movement, together with publicity about an anti-Hispanic memorandum by Dr. John Tanton, the chairman of U.S. English , contributed to the remarkably close election. Thus, organized opposition to Official English in Arizona evolved strategically, from a coalition that focused on the benefits of English proficiency into one that warned of the proposition's discriminatory potential and the hidden motives of its supporters.

Coloradans for Language Freedom and Colorado Unity formed the backbone of opposition to Official English in that state. As a multiethnic coalition of community activists and business leaders, these groups focused on the divisiveness of the initiative, Amendment One, and its threat to multilingual services:

    [It] is unnecessary to make official the language already spoken by the majority of Colorado citizens, except as a tool for furthering the goals of modern-day racism. ...

    The real purpose of Official English legislation is to diminish human rights in a very fundamental way by limiting language freedom. The aim of Official English proponents is to institutionalize racism and to stifle the growing economic and political power of minorities.<5>

Unlike Arizona's Proposition 106, however, Amendment One was a simple "one-liner" declaration of English as the official language that left its practical effects open to interpretation . And so, Colorado opponents faced a harder sell for their warnings about the initiative's impact on linguistic minorities. Although coalition leaders remained in regular contact with English Plus activists nationwide, the concept of English Plus played almost no role in the campaign. It is unclear whether an alternative campaign strategy would have resulted in a different outcome in Colorado, where Official English won with 61 percent of the vote. Opposition leaders conceded that a lack of funding and limited outreach in all areas of the state hampered efforts to run a successful campaign.

The Florida English Campaign began organizing for an Official English amendment in 1985. Not until a few months before the November 1988 election did opponents form an organization, known as English Plus, Inc. The nonprofit group was sponsored by UNIDOS, a South Florida Hispanic coalition, which put up money to hire a political consultant and executive director, develop a logo, publish briefing papers, and initiate fundraising within Miami's Cuban business community. At first, English Plus, Inc. attempted to attract a broader array of regional forces to oppose Amendment 11. But policy differences soon developed between the Hispanic board and the predominately Anglo staff of English Plus, which wanted to portray language restrictionism as primarily an economic threat rather than an issue of anti-Hispanic prejudice. One tactic that especially angered the board was a so-called "Hispanic gag order" advocated by English Plus, that is, an effort to discourage Hispanic activists from discussing the campaign in the mainstream media. English Plus literature warned mainly of the negative effects on tourism and international business from passage of a "Language Enforcement Amendment":

    What will tourists from other states and countries think of Florida when the state legislature begins to enforce English as the official language of the state? Will international trading partners see the Florida L.E.A. as something that puts them in a poor position to bargain in, or with, this state? Will they take their business elsewhere?

    How many tourist and trade dollars will Florida attract in the future if the message we convey is: "Bring your business to Florida but only if you speak English"? We cannot afford to find out.

    Instead of making English the official language of Florida, we should focus on foreign language proficiency to boost our ability to compete directly with other economic powers and expand markets for American products.<6>

Leaving to form a new organization, Speak Up Now (SUN) for Florida, the English Plus staff members continued this approach, emphasizing the vagueness of the proposed amendment, its unintended consequences for a variety of educational programs, and its inflationary impact on Florida taxpayers. SUN for Florida continued to downplay threats to the civil rights of language-minority groups. Late in the campaign, however, following the disclosure of the notorious Tanton memo and subsequent resignations from U.S. English, the group issued statements accusing English Only leaders of white supremacist tendencies.

Perhaps the election would have been closer if the opponents had organized earlier and settled their internal differences. But it would be pure speculation to suggest what, if anything, could have altered the outcome: Amendment 11 passed by more than five to one (84-16 percent). From the beginning it was clear that the opposition faced long odds. Florida is a Southern state, where voters tend to reflect traditional, conservative values. Also, statewide polls revealed that voters were generally uninformed about Official English and its implications. A strong majority favored the idea even after hearing the arguments against it, such as the following paragraph read to participants in a 1987 Mason-Dixon survey:

    Opponents of this amendment say it is a dangerous law that we can do without. They say it goes far beyond affirming that English is our official language because it requires the state to enforce language preference, which is impossible to do in practice. It will cost Florida vitally needed jobs and revenues because regulation of language will require more government bureaucracy and lead to costly lawsuits over the interpretation of language laws. Most importantly, the amendment will not get more immigrants to speak English and will only further fragment our society. If anything, it will make it more difficult for immigrants to learn to speak English.

Now asked what appeal the English Only measure had for them, some 60 percent of respondents indicated from moderate to a great deal of appeal and 24 percent indicated little or no appeal (14 percent were unsure). Obviously, threats to the state's language minority communities did not strike a sympathetic chord among many voters. A final problem was that the concept of English Plus had little name recognition in Florida. Raising money for the campaign against Official English proved to be difficult, as in Arizona and Colorado, a problem that limited the amount of media advertising.

How effective was English Plus as a campaign strategy? In Arizona (even though the term was not used) the concept of promoting English proficiency, along with the right to learn and use other languages, garnered considerable support. That, combined with a high-profile debate over the restrictionist and anti-immigrant motives behind Proposition 106, nearly resulted in a defeat for Official English. But in Colorado, where English Plus played little if any role, a hard-hitting campaign against Amendment One as racist and divisive attracted a disappointing 39 percent of the vote. In Florida, an English Plus campaign that focused heavily on the threat to tourism and international business elicited a largely "so what" response from the voters, although there are indications that this appeal simply lacked credibility. For many, it was difficult to see how anyone would be offended, much less turned away from Florida, by a symbolic declaration of Official English.

Despite the distinct character of each state campaign, some patterns stand out. First, there is a shared conviction among the public that proficiency in English is important. Second, voters appear less inclined to approve language restrictionist policies when educated about the inherent xenophobia behind the English Only movement and the civil rights violations that could result from Official English measures. This was clearly the case in Arizona and, arguably, in Colorado. Third, an alternative to English Only, whether a policy stressing the value of multiple language skills or preservation of linguistic rights, must make sense to a public based on its own experience, which is still limited with respect to language as a political issue. Finally, a strong organization is essential to defeat state initiatives for Official English for example, pulling together a diverse coalition and starting early to raise funds for a major voter-education effort.

As a positive alternative to English Only, English Plus has won the endorsements of three state legislatures since 1988. In New Mexico, a nonbinding resolution supporting language rights, House Joint Memorial 16, passed in March 1989. The first English Plus measure in the nation, H.J.M. 16 encouraged multilingualism as beneficial to the state's continuing economic and cultural vitality, "whether that proficiency derives from second language study by English speakers or from home language maintenance plus English acquisition by speakers of other languages." Responding to an Official English bill introduced in a previous legislative session, H.J.M. 16 disputed the idea that English is threatened by other languages and warned that an English Only policy would endanger New Mexico's multicultural tradition of "diversity-with-harmony." Although passed with strong support from the state's foreign-language educators, the bill contains no "legal teeth" to guarantee increased funding for language programs. At this writing it is unclear whether it has had a measurable effect on language policy in New Mexico, other than to discourage further campaigns for Official English. Meanwhile, the states of Washington and Oregon have also adopted English Plus policies.<7>

Clearly, the appeal of English Plus has increased since 1985, through the efforts of EPIC and a growing network of coalitions and activists around the country. Still, the approach is not without its critics. For one thing, there has been confusion about the term English Plus, which has sometimes been equated with English Only. In 1988 one Hispanic advocacy group adopted a resolution opposing "such groups as U.S. English and English Plus [that] have been organizing a movement to amend the U.S. Constitution to make English the official language of the country."<8>

More serious reservations have come from some language-minority activists who regard English Plus as assimilationist, arguing that it fails to emphasize rights to maintain non-English languages and cultures. A desire to compromise with majority-group attitudes, they say, has no place in countering a racist and xenophobic movement that is attempting to impose English at the expense of other languages. Most important, these critics maintain, English Plus fails to acknowledge the role that minority groups themselves must play in developing language policies that affect their own communities. In response, the defenders of English Plus contend that the only way to defeat English Only is by forging the broadest possible coalition.

On balance, English Plus has provided a vehicle in several states and at the federal level to advance pluralistic language policies, and to bring together diverse groups to advance this agenda. To judge from the experience acquired in the 1988 campaigns, it can also be successful in defeating English Only efforts. Nevertheless, local coalitions must define alternative strategies based on the needs of their communities. English Plus represents one approach; there are undoubtedly others.


1. These include the states of New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, and the cities of Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, San Antonio, Tucson, and Washington, D.C.

2. "Not English Only, English Plus! Bilingual Education Issue Analysis," Oct. 15, 1985; SALAD press release, Miami, Dec. 4, 1985.

3. Gerda Bikales, the first executive director of U.S. English, reacted to the SALAD statement in the Miami News, Dec. 4, 1985: "When you speak of American students born to American parents, I agree that English Plus is better than English only. But what Secretary Bennett is talking about is the student who comes to this country without knowing any English."

4. State Representative Armando Ruiz, press release, Phoenix, Sept. 11, 1987.

5. Coloradans for Language Freedom, "Defeat Official English: The Number One Menace to Human Rights" [brochure, 1988].

6. "English Plus Briefing Paper on the Language Enforcement Amendment," July 24, 1988.

7. Washington's House Bill 2129 (1989) established an official policy "to welcome and encourage the presence of diverse cultures and the use of diverse languages in business, government, and private affairs in this state." Oregon's Senate Joint Resolution 16 (1989) resolved "to welcome, encourage and protect diverse cultures and use of diverse languages in business, government and private affairs." Both were offered as alternatives to Official English bills.

8. Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Resolution No. 10, passed at its national meeting, San Antonio, Aug. 25-27, 1988.


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: From LANGUAGE LOYALTIES: A SOURCE BOOK ON THE OFFICIAL ENGLISH CONTROVERSY, by James Crawford, published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright © 1992 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of both the author and the University of Chicago Press.