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Discriminatory and Unconstitutional: English Only in U.S.

About the Author: Judith Tsoi

Judith Tsoi, a rising junior at the University of Maryland, is currently pursuing a double degree in violin performance and psychology, as well as a minor in French. During her time on campus, she has been an active member of the Honors Humanities program and the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra. She enjoys working at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center and looks forward to working as a research assistant in the Language Music and Cognition Lab. In her free time, she loves watching movies, laughing, and making music with friends. 

Discriminatory and Unconstitutional: Why English Only Is Wrong For America

By Judith Tsoi | Position Paper

It was a simple question, "How are you?" Nei ho ma?

I knew what he had said, and I knew how to respond in Chinese, "I'm good, how are you?" I formed these words at the tip of my tongue, said them in my mind, yet my throat constricted and I made no sound.

This language, once second nature, had gone unused so long that it was now foreign to me. I could not make a sound, knowing that my horrible American accent would give me away, and then they would laugh. Rather than face imminent shame and embarrassment, I stayed quiet and did not reply in Chinese when my uncle, whom I had not seen in six years, asked me how I was doing. Instead, I nodded, sheepishly and shamefully, as I quietly replied in English only, "Good."

When I traveled to Hong Kong and Macau two winters ago, I was overjoyed to visit the place where my parents had grown up. However, it was simultaneously a bittersweet experience, as I began to realize the extent to which I was a complete foreigner. Though I looked Chinese, I could not speak the language; years of assimilation had washed it out of me.

It was this frustrating memory and similar experiences that provoked my desire to examine the American immigrant's conflict of linguistic identity. Recent concerns about immigrants flooding our nation have caused many to panic about the linguistic stability of our nation. Out of this irrational fear, some turn to legislation, hoping that establishing English language laws might reinforce the unity of our nation and give us security. However, what they don't realize is that most immigrants try to learn English as quickly as possible, to assimilate and adjust to a demanding new lifestyle in which linguistic competency is a large factor of success. Thus, they do not pose a threat to the English language's prominence in America, as demonstrated by an estimate that in 2011, 93% of our population spoke English (Ryan). However, while there are undeniable reasons for why immigrants should definitely learn English, any proposed official language legislation would only discourage non-English speakers from retaining and taking pride in their linguistic heritage, a significant aspect of their cultural identity. Thus, any legislature officiating English as the national language would be not only counteractive to national unity, but also inherently exclusive and discriminatory. This nation champions diversity and cultural acceptance; the mere existence of official language legislation would run contrary to our nation's ideals, values, and Constitution.

This essay will explore the numerous reasons why official English language laws would be inappropriate for our democratic nation. To provide clarification for my argument, I will first define the terminology, specifically those key phrases related to language law policies. I will then examine arguments that look into the unconstitutionality of English only laws, paying particular attention to recently proposed amendments and state language laws. I have chosen not to examine court cases, because an investigation of situations involving English only-mandating policies would be too specific for my purposes. Instead, I will examine the ideological aspect of language laws and demonstrate that the foundations of the arguments behind official English are fraught with qualities that run contrary to traditional American ideals. I will conclude by providing an alternative solution to assist the facilitation of immigrant integration into American society, namely the system of bilingual education. I will explore various policies of bilingual education and evaluate how they reflect the pluralistic society of America today. Throughout my argument, I will demonstrate that national language legislation would be detrimental to our nation's ideology and that the government should focus its resources on implementing education policies instead of bolstering law enforcement to ease the transition of immigrants into America.

Unbeknownst to many, for a little more than two hundred years, the United States of America has gotten by without an official language (Baron 36). But what effect would a national language have on the development of our nation? What purpose could it have? Though there are many differing interpretations of common terms used in language law discourse, writers and speakers frequently use "national language" and "official language" interchangeably and without differentiation (Ruiz 20). For the sake of clarity and consistency, I will do the same. Likewise, I will also use the policy names "official English" and "English only" interchangeably, for the sake of variety and to reflect the national discourse about these policies which employs the use of both terms, though "official English" is admittedly more euphemistic.

It is important to note that although the United States does not have an official language, approximately twenty-five states have declared an official language (Schildkraut 445). Individual states possess a constitutional jurisdiction to declare state languages; thus, the official language currently in question is that of the entire nation. Another important aspect of the debate to clarify is the purpose or end goal of English language policies. Many proponents of official English disagree with the current system of "multilingual government" and advocate for policies which would "[require] that routine government operations be in English" instead of "increasingly [seeking] to cater to immigrants in as many languages as possible" (English as the Official Language 7). Such policy shifts would be directed towards government-related distribution of information and would specifically target material including federal publications such as tax laws and medical precautions, bilingual ballots, translations of lawsuits and hearings, and other information provided for limited-English speakers in federally funded programs, such as public school notices for limited-English parents (English as the Official Language 63-64).

One issue that obstructs some officials from determining the constitutionality of English language laws is the question of language as right. According to a study of court cases conducted by Guadalupe Valdés of Stanford University, language discrimination against bilinguals has largely violated civil rights, those guaranteed to citizens through a constitution, as opposed to human rights, which are natural and inherent (Valdés 159). Whereas this rather esoteric question of whether retaining a native language is a natural human right or granted civil right may still be up in the air, linguistic ability indubitably correlates directly to an individual's understanding of societal affairs. Therefore, regardless of native language's standing as a natural or civil right, construction of any barrier preventing access to vital governmental information would directly interfere with the ability of non-English speaking Americans to receive information and ideas, an interest protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution (Chen 44).

In addition, attorneys who defend language rights and bilingual individuals have long portrayed language-restricting policies as discriminatory (Valdés 159). Sure enough, some opponents of English only legislation vehemently argue that "language discrimination is functionally equivalent to national origin discrimination" (Chen 39). This reasoning uses the logic that linguistic heritage is an integral part of an immigrant's identity; negative prejudice based on the linguistic element of an immigrant's identity is just another way of actively discriminating against someone solely because the individual is a foreigner. The discriminatory nature of these language policies is seen in their tendency to alienate or offend, which in turn leads to a greater risk of community conflict. As evidenced by the 2007 report of a U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, this conflict between natural-born citizens and immigrants is detrimental to Official English supporters' purported goals of "assimilation and integration" (Comprehensive Immigration Reform).

As Betty Lou Dubois, Professor of Speech at New Mexico State University, points out, one of the fundamental purposes of law is to "forestall conflict by providing a standard of conduct" (233). She goes on to state that, ironically enough, in this situation, the implementation of language regulations would not lead us away from conflict, but towards it (233). Though supporters of official English claim the implementation of such a policy would unite the nation through a common language, the English language law campaign has historically always led to division of communities. This trend is documented in a 2006 report of a United States House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, undertaken by a Subcommittee on Education Reform (English as the Official Language). Since the campaign began in the early 1980's, there have been flares of language vigilantism that include ignorant and exclusionary slogans such as "This is America—speak English!" (English as the Official Language 64). This way of thinking, prompted by the fervor in the English language debate, has often led to an offensive ideology that includes the bipartisan dichotomy of us versus them. Here, the immigrant is seen as the "other"—a foreigner, alienated and wrong. James Crawford, advocate for English language learners and president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy, asserts that "language-restrictionist laws are never just about language" (English as the Official Language61); rather, they inherently reflect attitudes and discrimination against speakers of certain languages and "racist attitudes—toward Latinos in particular—have closely been associated with this movement" ( 61). Crawford later quotes Arizona Senator John McCain's opposition to a language law proposal: "Why [would we] want to pass some kind of initiative that a significant portion of our population considers an assault on their heritage?" (English as the Official Language 64). Evidently, language and identity cannot be separated, as language is an intrinsic and ubiquitous component of culture. Linguistic heritage is undoubtedly a crucial part of an individual's identity and it is clearly evident that a restrictive regulation would make a bilingual person feel threatened and/or alienated.

I would like to clarify that these feelings of being discriminated against are not restricted to non-English speaking immigrants. The effects are felt by second and third generation Americans, whose parents and grandparents were immigrants, as seen in the multiple court cases examined in Valdés' study. This cyclic pattern of discrimination reveals that the conflicts and challenges associated with English Only attitudes and policies "continue—especially in an anti-immigrant age—even after individuals acquire English" (Valdés 164). The official English campaign has antagonized American immigrants for years and the creation of a national official language would only embody that similar exclusivity and discrimination. Since the language regulations target specific groups of immigrants, the racial undercurrents make the proposed laws dangerous and divisive, and instead of leading to the happy unification of America, this legislation would only "exacerbate social discord and ethnic tension" (Chen 49).

Negative sentiment towards diverse and foreign languages would discourage immigrants from retaining their unique language heritage in an attempt to actively conform and assimilate into American society. In my own experience, I have heard the regrets of many who regret the loss of their native language. Despite attending heritage centers or extra-curricular language schools at a young age, later-generation immigrants struggle with a seemingly "hegemonic" environment that "refuses to recognize the complexity of contaminated diasporic identifications," thus making it difficult to hold onto multiple strains of cultural identity (Branach-Kallas 356). According to a study about the involuntary loss of native language by the "third and later generations, the pressures to speak English exclusively are sufficiently strong" and it is extremely difficult to preserve the other tongue (Alba 480). It is troubling and regretful that these formerly bilingual individuals can no longer use or recall this language that united them with people of similar ethnic background. Though I regret not cherishing the bilingual opportunities I had as a child, I am thankful that I came to realize the significance of my parent's language, and I do not believe it is too late for me to hold on to my linguistic heritage.

However, one policy that would respond to the call for immigration reform and facilitate immigration integration without mandatory assimilation would be the inclusion of a more substantial bilingual education system. If English represents such a crucial aspect to becoming American and being successful in America, the government, instead of imposing exclusionary regulations, should actively help immigrants learn English, while perhaps also promoting the status of bilingual individuals so that no one has to feel shame for having an ethnic or linguistic background.

Recent studies have shown that two-way bilingual education can potentially benefit both English and non-English speaking students. Instead of viewing English learner students as "problems" that require remedial "fixing," administrators of two-way bilingual enrichment programs can use students' linguistic and cultural experiences as a resource (Thomas and Collier 37-38). The two-way bilingual programs proposed involve a near-equal use of instruction time and grading in both English and the non-English language. The program would produce active bilingual students, supported by engaged parents and school administrators. Teachers would combine non-English students with English students to create a heterogeneous class in which a symbiotic relationship exists between both types of student, and they could learn from each other (Thomas and Collier 39). This system is radical and would require special demographics in order to be successful and promote enrichment on behalf of both groups of students. However, this future model could be a possibility, especially since language-minority students are predicted to account for about 40% of the school-age population by the 2030s (Thomas and Collier 40).

Although such revolutionary systems are not necessary everywhere, the aforementioned two-way bilingual education program would encourage the inclusion and grateful acceptance of language-minority students. Conversely, refusal to implement these programs could threaten to incur great losses on both native English and non-English speakers alike. Recent bilingual studies have clearly shown that "in controlled studies of cognitive performance across the life span, bilinguals consistently outperform their monolingual counterparts" (Bialystok 233). Language laws hoping to make English the only language in schools could possibly eradicate any opportunities for language minority students to learn English at the same rate as their peers. In some areas of California, "one out of every three students is a Spanish/English bilingual learner" and any truncation of bilingual programs would inhibit the education and acculturation processes of these students (Mora 45). These official English policies that narrow-mindedly promote the "security" of the English language at the cost of other minorities will include the collateral "loss of other languages and the sacrifice of valuable linguistic skills" (Mora 46). Eradication of bilingualism at best deprives both native English and non-English speakers of an invaluable asset. At worst, a student may suffer a linguistic loss from which there is little or no return.

Assimilation, integration, acculturation—whatever we want to call adjustment into American society—should not require the sacrifice of an equally rich culture integral to the individual's identity. Surely I appreciate the advantages that my English skills have brought me, but I also mourn the loss of my familiarity with the Chinese language. Such a loss has already begun to alienate me from my parents' culture. English language policies in the United States should reflect our nation’s championed values of diversity and acceptance. Language practices should not be forced and enforced through an exclusionary and discriminatory piece of legislation that violates the fundamental ideals on which this nation was founded. Instead, language policies should allow Americans to grow together by facilitating and supporting programs that allow cross-cultural communication and draw from the invaluable experiences of others' unique languages and cultures.


Works Cited


Alba, Richard, et al. “Only English by the Third Generation? Loss and Preservation of the Mother Tongue among the Grandchildren of Contemporary Immigrants.” Demography 39.3 (2002): 467-484. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2014.

Baron, Dennis. “Federal English.” Language Loyalties. Ed. James Crawford. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1992. 36-40. Print.

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Branach-Kallas, Anna. “Between the Diaspora and the Nation: Multicultural Identity Negotiations in Selected Asian-Canadian Writings.” Beyond Imagined Uniqueness: Nationalisms in Contemporary Perspectives. Burbick, Joan, and William Glass, eds. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010. 347-366. Print.

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Thomas, Wayne and Virginia Collier. “Two-Way Bilingual Programs Benefit Both English- and Non-English-Speaking Students.” Bilingual Education. Ed. Loreta Medina. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2003. 36-40. Print.

United States. House of Representatives. Committee on Education and the Workforce. Subcommittee on Education Reform. English as the Official Language. 109th Cong., 2nd sess. Washington: GPO, 2006. HathiTrust. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.

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Valdés, Guadalupe. “Bilingual Individuals and Language-Based Discrimination: Advancing the State of the Law on Language Rights.” Language Ideologies: Critical Perspectives on the Official English Movement. Ed. Roseann González and Ildikó Melis. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. 140-170. Print