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Official English
Opinion Polls
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Research Controversy

Language Policy n. 1. What government does officially – through legislation, court decisions, executive action, or other means – to (a) determine how languages are used in public contexts, (b) cultivate language skills needed to meet national priorities, or (c) establish the rights of individuals or groups to learn, use, and maintain languages.
    2. Government regulation of its own language use, including steps to facilitate clear communication, train and recruit personnel, guarantee due process, foster political participation, and provide access to public services, proceedings, and documents. 

Strictly speaking, the United States has never had a language policy, consciously planned and national in scope. It has had language policies – ad hoc responses to immediate needs or political pressures – often contradictory and inadequate to cope with changing times. Government cannot avoid language policymaking. Yet no federal agency is charged with coordinating decisions, resources, or research in this area.

The U.S. government spends, by rough estimate, more than $1.5 billion each year to support various forms of language education. Unfortunately no one can say whether these funds are well allocated or what overriding goals they serve. Such programs often work at cross purposes. For example, over the past three decades the U.S. Department of Education has poured billions of dollars into bilingual education, mainly the transitional variety designed to replace the languages of minority children with English. Meanwhile, other federal programs were spending billions to support "foreign" language instruction – that is, to teach many of these same tongues to English speakers. Neither approach has been very successful in cultivating fluent bilingualism. So Americans' proficiencies in languages deemed critical to national security and international trade remain in short supply. One alternative we have not tried is to exploit and develop the natural linguistic resources of minority communities.

For much of U.S. history, laissez-faire has predominated in matters of language policy. Bilingual and minority-language schooling flourished in the 19th century without prompting by federal authorities, especially in the rural expanses of "German America," as well as in communities of French, Spanish, Norwegians, Cherokees, and others. Discrimination has also flourished at times. English Only restrictions were used to harass unpopular minorities, such as Spanish speakers in California or German speakers during World War I, or to repress colonized groups, such as American Indians and Puerto Ricans

Yet, for Americans, language has seldom been a major fault line – certainly when compared with race, ethnicity, or religion. Following the tight immigration quotas of the 1920s, bilingualism receded even further as a national concern. Schooling remained a matter of state and local discretion, with virtually no federal involvement until Sputnik. There seemed little need for a comprehensive language policy. 

No more. In the 1960s racial restrictions were removed from U.S. immigration law, inviting a diverse stream of newcomers. The civil rights movement made equal educational opportunity a national priority. Seismic shifts in demography began to empower long-subordinated minorities and to highlight the country's multiculturalism. Native Americans launched efforts to preserve and revitalize endangered languages. Meanwhile, information technologies have transformed the global marketplace. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the United States finds itself in more complex relationships with other nations. All these changes have elevated the importance of language, both practically and politically.

If the Official English debate has made any contribution, it has been to highlight our lack of a coherent policy to respond to the new diversity. The 1980s brought a growth of 40 percent in the foreign-born population, 38 percent in speakers of minority languages, and 37 percent in U.S. residents who have some difficulty with English. There is no sign that these trends will soon be reversed, short of draconian restrictions on immigration. Already the social impact is substantial; hence the English Only reaction.

Today, in my view, the central question of U.S. language policy is how we should respond to demographic changes in ways that serve the national interest and uphold our democratic traditions:

  • Should we regard minority languages as a threat and attempt to restrict their use, adopting various coercive measures to assimilate immigrants? 
  • Should we regard diversity primarily as a source of problems, continuing to respond with a variety of uncoordinated tactics to cope with language barriers? 
  • Or should we regard diversity as an asset, encouraging linguistic minorities to conserve their skills and providing them ample opportunities to learn English, while safeguarding their language rights
The last of these approaches is known as English Plus, a philosophy that stresses the importance of English proficiency for all Americans – something that no one disputes – while encouraging the development of multiple language skills.

Issues in U.S. Language Policy


The Future of Spanish in the United StatesVista Magazine article by Max J. Castro, September 1997.
Language Planning Agencies and Language Management Organizations – A searchable directory of language policy activity in numerous countries.
Language Futures Europe – An exhaustive collection of links on multilingualism, nationalism, EEC language policies, and the global dominance of English (on and off the Internet), among numerous other topics; emphasis on Europe, but also features sites on U.S. monolingual follies.
Language Policy Course – Taught by Dr. Harold Schiffman, University of Pennsylvania
For a Multilingual Turn in American Studies, by Werner Sollors – On-line discussion organized by the American Studies Association, including responses by an international group of scholars.

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