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Issues in U.S. Language Policy

English Plus

Consider the irony: despite its increasing diversity, the United States remains an underdeveloped country when it comes to language skills. Immigrants are importing other tongues at record rates. Yet the vast majority of native-born Americans remain stubbornly monolingual. Our ignorance of other languages and cultures handicaps us in dealing with the rest of the world. U.S. trade, diplomacy, and national security all suffer.<1>

Today our language policies address this problem primarily with efforts – none too successful – to teach "foreign" languages to Anglo-Americans.<2> Meanwhile, we seek to eradicate these same skills among our ethnic minorities, out of misplaced fears of diversity or haste to force their assimilation. Even transitional bilingual education programs serve to wean children off their native languages as rapidly as possible.

Why not try a different approach? Instead of focusing on immigrants' disabilities in English, why not encourage them to maintain their abilities in other tongues while they learn English? Why not exploit the valuable resources they are contributing? In short, why not promote English, plus other languages? 

English Plus has emerged as the main policy alternative and rallying cry for those opposed to the English Only campaign. The case for English Plus boils down to a simple question: why throw away valuable knowledge? If there is any pedagogical reason to do so, it has yet to be discovered. Psycholinguists have long since debunked the myth that bilingualism confuses the brain. More likely, it enhances cognitive flexibility. Certainly, multiple language skills benefit individuals in numerous ways – occupational, cultural, psychological – and they could also benefit the country. But we need to seize this opportunity with conscious policy decisions. 

What would an English Plus policy look like?

  1. English Plus would increase investments in language education for all Americans. It would strengthen programs that teach English, especially adult classes in English as a second language, which are now in short supply in many areas. At the elementary and secondary level, it would stress pedagogies that conserve minority language skills while children learn English, such as developmental and "two-way" bilingual education. 
  2. English Plus would take a more systematic approach to providing essential services, due process, and access to government for those whose English remains limited.
  3. English Plus would guarantee language rights: both freedom from language-based discrimination and freedom to speak, learn, and maintain the language of one's choice. 
A nonbinding English Plus resolution, H.Con.Res. 9, has been introduced in the 107th Congress by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.). Similar measures have passed at the state level in New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington. These measures have served primarily as a tool to educate the public about language policy issues.

As a counterpoint to English Only, however, English Plus has been less than an unqualified success, as Mary Carol Combs, former director of the English Plus Information Clearinghouse, explains in an analysis of its history in advocacy. 

1. E.g., it has created major problems for U.S. security agencies. "Of the more than 500,000 American troops deployed to the Persian Gulf [during Operation Desert Storm], the Department of Defense was able to identify just 45 U.S. military personnel with any Iraqi language backgrounds, and only 5 of these were trained in intelligence operations"; Congressional finding of the Foreign Language Economic Enhancement Act, H.R. 5442, 102d Congress.

2. Enrollments in modern-language courses increased from 23 percent of U.S. secondary students in 1982 to 38 percent in 1990 – largely due to stiffer college entrance requirements. Nevertheless, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, "only 3 percent of American high school graduates, and only 5 percent of our college graduates, reach a meaningful proficiency in a second language – and many of these students come from bilingual homes"; ACTFL Public Awareness Newsletter, May 1987.

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