"Babel" in Schools
Life After Prop. 227
Issues in U.S. Language Policy
Language Legislation in the U.S.A.
English Only legislation first appeared in 1981 as a constitutional English Language Amendment. This proposal, if approved by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures, would have banned virtually all uses of languages other than English by federal, state, and local governments. But the measure has never come to a Congressional vote, even in committee.
Since 1981, 25 states have adopted various forms of Official English legislation, in addition to four that had already done so. Subtracting Hawai'i (which is officially bilingual) and Alaska (whose English-only initiative has been declared unconstitutional) leaves a total of 27 states with active Official English laws. These measures are unrelated, however, to the process of amending the U.S. Constitution.
In the early 1990s English Only advocates changed their strategy. Recognizing the long odds against ratifying a constitutional amendment, they began to promote a statutory form of Official English. Such a bill would apply to the federal government alone and would require only a simple majority vote in Congress (as well as the President's signature) to become law. Several versions of so-called "Language of Government" legislation have appeared since that time. One of these bills, H.R. 123, passed the House of Representatives – but not the Senate – in 1996. So the measure failed to become law.
Similar legislation is introduced in each new Congress. Generally speaking, it would amend the U.S. Code in the following ways:
For an excellent and comprehensive critique of Official English, see the 1996 House committee testimony of Edward Chen, a language rights litigator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Further analysis may be found in English Only Updates.
To make members of Congress aware of your views on language legislation (or any other matter), you may contact your Senator or Representative by email or fax – at no charge – by clicking here. You may also want to contact members of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs and the House Committees on Education and the Workforce and on the Judiciary, which have jurisdiction over English Only bills.
NOTE: Thanks to email correspondents who have alerted me to late developments in several states. If anyone else has information on pending language legislation not listed here, I would appreciate hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 1997-2008 by James Crawford. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this page for free, noncommercial distribution, provided that credit is given and this notice is included. Requests for permission to reproduce in any other form should be emailed to this address. But before writing, please read my permissions FAQ.
Last updated on 1 February 2012