Surviving the English-Only Assault: Public Attitudes and the Future of Language Education
By James Crawford

Is ‘English Only’ an idea whose moment has arrived? This year Congress came close to passing a bill declaring English the nation’s official language and outlawing most uses of other languages by the federal government. What would be the impact of such a law? Why is it suddenly getting serious consideration? What’s at stake for the field of English as a second language (ESL)? And how should you, as ESL professionals respond? Indeed, these are questions that should concern all language educators in our country today.

While there’s considerable uncertainty about how the issue will play out politically, one thing is certain: English-only legislation will be back next year. That’s not a very daring prediction; similar bills have been introduced in every Congress since 1981. Last summer, with Speaker Newt Gingrich denouncing bilingualism as a menace to American ‘civilization,’ the US House of Representatives passed HR123, the so-called English Language Empowerment Act (1996).

This was an unprecedented event in two ways. It was the first time Congress had seriously considered an English-only measure; none had ever been voted on before, even in committee. Moreover, it was the first time a partisan divide had opened over language in the USA. Republican leaders seem to think they have found a ‘wedge issue’ they can exploit – a way to divide and weaken the Democratic base. Bob Dole, the Senate Majority Leader and presidential nominee, became enamored of this tool more than a year ago, around the time an opinion survey reported that 86% of Americans favored ‘official English’ (US English, 1995). It’s clear that public attitudes are driving this campaign, prompting politicians to jump on the nativist bandwagon.

Fortunately, the Senate failed to act on HR123 in its final rush to adjournment. So the bill died in the 104th Congress, lending no momentum to Dole’s faltering run for president. President Bill Clinton has threatened to veto any English-only legislation that reaches his desk. Still, it’s important to note that back in 1987, as governor of Arkansas, Clinton signed a official- English bill into law. So his promise is not quite as rock-solid as one might hope.

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