Exclusion through language

letter from Ron Wyden senator from Oregon

A couple months ago Brownfemipower posted about the Inhofe Amendment. The amendment was contained within the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, S. 1348. (Note: S. 1639 has a similar English language amendment) This amendment would have amended title 4 of the United States Code to “declare English as the national language of the Government of the United States, and for other purposes.”

I was upset to read that Ron Wyden (D) from Oregon had supported the Inhofe Amendment. I quickly wrote Senator Wyden and I received a response this week:

Dear Mr. Stoller:

Thank you for contacting me about establishing English as the national language of the United States. I appreciate hearing from you on this important issue.

During debate on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, S. 1348, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma introduced an amendment that would have declared English the national language of the United States. I supported the Inhofe Amendment because I believe that English provides a strong unifying element in America’s culturally diverse society. I also believe the vast majority of immigrants in our country already understand their future success depends greatly on their ability to speak our common language. The fact that many English classes around the country have month or year long waiting lists is further evidence most immigrants want to acquire these skills.

Although the Inhofe amendment was agreed to, the immigration bill’s opponents used a procedural motion to block the bill from receiving an up-or-down vote. Please rest assured that as the Senate continues to discuss making English the national language, I will keep your views and needs in mind.

Again, thank you for keeping me apprised of issues that are important to you. If I may be of further assistance in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Ron Wyden
United States Senator

Wow. I am stunned by Senator Wyden’s (form) letter. I feel that English as the national language would create division and further xenophobia. 12-20 million immigrants in the United States would suddenly be out of luck in finding publications on health and safety in their native languages. A monolingual society is not going to magically unify people. America’s culturally diverse society is a good thing. The alleged fact (I think I’d need to see some data on this from Wyden’s camp) that English classes have “month or year long waiting lists” is not evidence that English should be the legislated national language of the United States.

The following article from Susan Dicker provides several reasons why English should not be the national language of the United States.

The myth of the melting-pot tradition

    The United States had a brilliant solution for the inherent fragility of a multiethnic society: the creation of a brand-new national identity, carried forward by individuals who, in forsaking old loyalties and joining to make new lives, melted away ethnic differences. Those intrepid Europeans….wanted to forget a horrid past and embrace a hopeful future….The point of America was not to preserve old cultures, but to forge a new American culture….[Today] a cult of ethnicity has arisen both among non-anglo Whites and among non-White minorities to denounce the idea of a melting pot, to challenge the concept of ‘one people’ and to protect, promote, and perpetuate separate ethnic and racial communities (Arthur Schlesinger, 1992).

This tradition exists only in people’s minds. The European explorers who settled here tried as much as possible to live as they had lived at home. Instead of “melting away” ethnic differences, they subjugated the Indians and later the Black slaves they brought over to serve them. And they imposed their European culture on them. In Florida, where miscegenation produced the mestizo race, those of mixed ancestry who acquired the culture of the Spanish–in dress, in behavior, in language–were likely to do better socially and economically.

With each subsequent wave of immigration, newcomers have tried as much as possible to maintain their cultures. The Germans established German-speaking towns with German-language newspapers, churches, and schools; during the War for Independence there were all-German units under the command of German-speaking officers. What led to the death of the German culture was increased animosity toward new immigrants in the first decades of the twentieth century and the two World Wars that made Germany our enemy and therefore tainted everything German.

The tradition of American history is that immigrant cultures are maintained. It is only when an immigrant group appears to pose a threat to others that its desire to hold onto its culture is looked down on. So it is with the large numbers of impoverished people of color who have come to America recently: Hispanics, Haitians, Vietnamese. Note that the large number of Russians settling in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn have never come under attack; these immigrants are white and European.

The idea that ethnic and racial communities are the result of a “cult of ethnicity” ignores the role that racism plays in where and how people live. Minority groups usually live apart from whites because that’s what whites want. Minorities have been systematically segregated from society. Most minorities do not choose to live in economically depressed inner cities; they end up there because they can’t afford to live elsewhere. Those minorities who have the means but who choose to live apart from the mainstream do so in part because they want to avoid the prejudice they know they will find in the mainstream.

The myth that the use of more than one language fosters divisiveness

    For the first time in our history, our nation is faced with the possibility of the kind of linguistic division that has torn apart Canada in recent years….Political differences become hardened and made immeasurably more difficult to resolve when they are accompanied by differences of language–and therefore conflicts of ethnic pride (Hayakawa, 1985).

Canada has been a bilingual nation. The separatist movement in Quebec in the 1970s resulted from the fact that the English-speaking contingent in that province, numerically small but economically and socially dominant, had eroded the rights of the French-speaking majority, abolishing the use of French in education and removing support for Catholic schools. The French were effectively marginalized in society, with most upper-level jobs in government and business held by anglophones. When the federal government restored the rights of francophones with the Official Languages Act, conditions improved for French speakers and the separatist movement weakened. So, bilingual policy helped restore peace rather than foment divisiveness. Today, if French is becoming so prominent in Quebec that English is endangered, causing discontent once again, it proves that a balance of language use needs to be maintained. Many Canadians also say that the reporting of the language issue and threats of secession are overblown in the press outside Canada.

The myth of immigrant resistance to learning English

    For the last fifteen years, we have experienced a growing resistance to the acceptance of our historic language, an antagonistic questioning of the melting pot philosophy that has traditionally helped speed newcomers into the American mainstream (Huddleston, 1983).

The best way to respond to this argument is with hard facts:

  • In 1986, the year in which California passed an official-English law, the estimate of people on waiting lists for English classes in Los Angeles County was 40,000 (Ingam, 1986).
  • In 1991, Gov. Pete Wilson of California vetoed plans to put $65 million of Federal money into English proficiency classes for immigrants newly legalized under the INS amnesty program; 2,500 Mexican Americans staged a protest march. Said one leader, “We want to participate in the economy of the greatest state in the nation” (“Immigrants,” 1991).

  • In 1989, a government-financed English language and employment service for immigrants and refugees in NYC served 3,000 (Howe, 1990).
  • The NYS Division of Adult and Continuing Education Programs enrolled 69,200 adults in free English classes in 1990, up from 45,000 the previous year (Howe, 1990).

The contention that an official-English law will aid in the acquisition of English

    Having an official language will require government responsibility for providing more opportunities for immigrants to learn English …Without an official policy, we can expect to see higher levels of unemployment among language minorities, more disparity between the positions employers wish to fill and workers seek to gain, and higher costs of remedial training and reeducation on the part of employers (de la Peña, 1991).

The official-English proposals that have been presented at the federal and state levels do not required government to be responsible for providing opportunities for learning English. The closest such legislation has come is H. R. 124, part of the “Language for All Peoples Initiative” introduced in 1993. This bill amends the Internal Revenue Code to allow employers credit for 50% of expenses incurred in English language training for their employees. While this may give some employers an incentive to offer English instruction, it will not affect those immigrants most in need of help learning English: those who are unemployed and those who work in low-wage jobs which require no English. Employers of the latter group take advantage of the fact that their workers speak no English; this makes the workers dependent on their bosses, subject to exploitation, and unable to find better jobs elsewhere. These employers are unlikely to offer English classes, regardless of the tax credit.

US English itself does not have a record of urging such responsibility on the federal government. In fact, US English failed to support a 1986 bill calling for more federal subsidies for adult ESL instruction (the bill passed anyway). In its Winter 1994 newsletter, US English Update, the organization reported that its US English Foundation, whose mission is to promote opportunities for immigrants to learn English, awarded $2,000, space heaters, and two used computers to “Casa del Pueblo,” a Washington, DC organization that provides English instruction, and $5,000 to “Project Citizenship” in Santa Cruz, money that would pay for 12 part-time teachers and basic teaching materials for 550 students. Compared to what the organization spends on lobbying at the state and and national levels, these contributions are a drop in the bucket: Califa (1991b) reports that US English spends between 1% and 7% of its budget on literacy programs. Also, as can be seen in the case of California, passage of an official English law does not automatically increase accessibility to English education.

The supposed threat of other languages to English

    Foreign languages are useful, and we should teach more of them. But they are foreign languages, not coequals. They don’t have the same relevance or history, and they are not replacements for English (Gerda Bikales, in Keyser, 1986.)

One of the central arguments of the official-English movement is that other languages pose a threat to English. One way to answer this is to focus on the meaning of bilingualism. Many opponents of bilingualism actually interpret it as the sole or major use of a language other than English, rather than the use of two languages. This has never been the intent of immigrants who, we have seen above, are eager to learn and use English. To prove the advantages of bilingualism, it is helpful to give examples of people who are actually bilingual: those who can choose one of two languages depending on the appropriateness of the situation. Also, there is substantial evidence that English is much more of a threat to other languages than other languages are to English. Sontag (1993) reports on a recent study of 5,000 eighth and ninth grade immigrant students of Cuban, Haitian, Filipino, Mexican, and Vietnamese heritage. A large percentage of these students admitted to preferring English over their native languages. One can also point to the dominance of English on a world wide basis: English has 300 million native speakers, is used as an additional language by just as many native speakers of other languages, is used in an official capacity in roughly forty countries, and is studied by a huge number of native speakers of other languages all over the world (Wolfson, 1989).

The contention that bilingual services prevent immigrants from learning English

    [The] Hispanic leadership [does not] seem to be alarmed that large populations of Mexican Americans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans do not speak English and have no intentions of learning. Hispanic spokesmen rejoice when still another concession is made to the Spanish-speaking public, such as the Spanish-language Yellow Pages telephone directory now available in Los Angeles (Hayakawa, 1985).

This statement is contradicted by a large body of evidence showing that Spanish speakers are and have always been learning English at a rapid rate (see Veltman 1983, 1988). In talking about bilingual services, it is important to create a picture of the immigrant population not as homogeneous but heterogeneous in regard to individuals’ abilities to speak English. Some are newly arrived; some have been here for a while but have not had the opportunity to study English; some are in the process of studying English formally; some are trying to learn English but are not progressing; some are isolated due to age, infirmity, or other circumstances, and as a consequence have no access to English classes or to people with whom they could practice the language. Bilingual services make sure that all the constituents of an immigrant population have access to a minimum amount of services, whether they need such services temporarily or permanently.

And they are minimum; immigrants know that their full participation in American society depends on their ability to speak English. No one wants to rely on their own language or on translators all the time. Rimer (1992) gives a sympathetic portrait of students in an adult ESL class in Brooklyn, New York. One student claims as one of her triumphs that she can now go to the doctor’s office, the store, or her children’s school without bringing along her nephew as a translator. She also regrets that, several years before, she didn’t know enough English to stand up to the American factory boss who had laid her off while keeping on a younger employee with less seniority.

If the availability of bilingual services prevents or discourages immigrants from learning English, then this would show up in cities with large immigrant populations. Where there is significant access to bilingual services, demand for adult ESL classes would be low, and vice versa. But this is not the case. In all cities which are magnets for immigrants, bilingual services are widespread, and the demand for ESL instruction usually outstrips the supply.

The argument against bilingual ballots

    We expect all those under the age of fifty seeking naturalization to demonstrate competence in English as a condition of citizenship. However, in 375 jurisdictions in 21 states, the federal government still requires that ballots be printed in languages other than English. How can we require knowledge on the one hand, then turn around and encourage dependency on other languages with the other? (Shumway, 1988)

Efforts to disenfranchize minority members of society have been the scourge of our democratic society. Poll taxes and literacy tests were once instituted to intimidate black voters and discourage them from going to the polls. Immigrants with a minimal knowledge of English were also treated with contempt at voting sites. Federal law protecting the use of bilingual ballots in districts that have significant numbers of nonnative English-speakers with low levels of literacy was passed to eliminate these discriminatory practices.

The test for citizenship in the United States is based on a third-to-fourth-grade level of English proficiency. Could a third-grade American child read and understand some of the initiatives that appear on ballots? Some may argue that we need to increase the level of English proficiency required for naturalization. However, we have never made knowledge of English a prerequisite for citizenship. It has never been an issue for immigrants who have been considered “desirable.” For instance, during the cold war we gave refuge to scores of Eastern Europeans regardless of their knowledge of English (Martina Navratilova could barely communicate with reporters when she first arrived; it took her years to really master the language).

In addition, we don’t require natural citizens to pass a literacy test to prove their patriotism or as a requisite to the right to vote. We value literacy, and we encourage native-born Americans who are illiterate to learn to read and write. We recognize literacy as important for full participation in society and the full realization of personal goals. But we don’t demand it as a qualification for citizenship.

Voting in one’s native language on one day of the year is unlikely to deter immigrants from learning English; there are many incentives for learning English that far outweigh the ability to conduct some necessary tasks in the native language. It has also been determined that bilingual ballots are most often used by a very specific group. A 1982 study by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that those most likely to use Spanish-language ballots were over 65, had a low level of education, and had low incomes (Avila, 1983). This group would most likely not vote at all if bilingual ballots were not available to them.

Some also complain about the cost of bilingual ballots. Bilingual voting services may sometimes require additional funds. However, it is the mandate of a democracy to give access to the ballot to as many citizens as possible. Doing so inevitably costs money. Voter registration drives take time and money. Allowing access to voting places to people in wheelchairs takes money. Special provisions for blind voters cost money. Absentee balloting costs money. Inclusion versus exclusion is the desired goal, one which is deemed worth the dollar price.

Bilingualism as the cause of segregation and alienation

    Bilingualism shuts doors. It nourishes self-ghettoization, and ghettoization nourishes racial antagonism. Bilingualism ‘encourages concentrations of Hispanics to stay together and not be integrated,’ says Alfredo Mathew, Jr., a Hispanic leader, and it may well foster ‘a type of apartheid that will generate animosities with others, such as Blacks, in the competition for scarce resources, and further alienate the Hispanic from the larger society.’ Using some language other than English dooms people to second-class citizenship in American society (Schlesinger, 1992).

If Schlesinger is really talking about bilingualism here, and not monolingualism in a language other than English, it makes no sense to say that bilingualism alienates. Quite the opposite: It allows the speaker to be able to be part of two speech communities instead of one. More importantly, to argue that language is what segregates and alienates a minority group is ridiculous. The biggest proof of this is the large numbers of African Americans who live alienated from mainstream society, not because of language, but because of institutionalized racism and segregation. We know that housing discrimination is a reality; we know that public education does not treat all children equally; we know that people of color are relegated to second-class status in all areas of life by white society. Here’s another argument: If Hispanics wanted to live together, why don’t more of them live together in nice, suburban areas rather than inner city ghettos? (Some of course do, partly in order to avoid the racism they know exists.)

It is unconvincing to argue that bilingualism encourages racial animosity between minority groups fighting for scarce resources. If these groups are competing for scarce resources, they will do so whether or not they speak the same language. The true source of this competition is not bilingualism but racism and the unfair distribution of wealth perpetuated by those in power and based to an extent on race and ethnicity.

The double standard of bilingualism

    For the immigrant recently arrived, bilingualism is an uncomfortable, imperfect phase on the way to somewhere else. Knowing and using a different language at home have historically been seen as signs of being ‘lower class.’ Bilingualism that is valued is the elite variety–full competency in two languages among a small percentage of people for the purpose of scholarly work, diplomacy, foreign trade, or travel (Porter, 1990).

The essential difference between “elite” bilingualism and “folk” bilingualism is one of class: the first being characteristic of those immigrants who are highly educated by the time they come here, the second being a trait of those who are of the lower classes and likely to have a low level of education. There is no logical reason why folk bilingualism cannot be as useful and positive a characteristic as elite bilingualism. Furthermore, if bilingualism is a positive characteristic, why should it be “transitional” for anyone? And why shouldn’t those not yet literate in their first language maintain and gain literacy, thereby becoming elite bilinguals and enjoying the benefits to their social, economic and professional lives (a good argument for maintenance bilingual education)? This double standard also shows up in the differentiation between “foreign languages” and “immigrant” or “minority languages.”

The alleged hidden agenda and the inherent failure of bilingual education

    The bilingual education establishment is fighting to maintain its primacy and prerogative unchallenged, even though bilingual programs have, in the majority of cases, proven unsuccessful….The hidden agenda of the bureaucracy–preserving hispanic language and culture at the price of social integration and advance–is ideological; the political agenda–garnering jobs, power, and community control–is predictably self-serving (Porter, 1990).

The idea that Hispanic leaders are purposely sabotaging the advancement of the Hispanic community is repugnant to many Hispanics. Califa (1991a) reports that in a 1984 study by the National Opinion Research Center, 98% of Hispanics polled agreed that the ability to speak and understand English is an important obligation of United States citizenship. Califa adds, “I know of no Hispanic parents who are upset that their children have learned English….As a Hispanic parent, I find [the] implication that we fail to realize the civic and economic importance of English to be condescending and insulting.” He also points out that, despite arguments to the contrary, bilingual education cannot be responsible for Hispanic adult illiteracy because such illiteracy predates the Bilingual Education Act of 1967.

Porter’s contention that Hispanic leaders are using bilingual education to preserve the Hispanic language and culture is not born out by the work of the National Association for Bilingual Education. This organization includes many non-Hispanics in its membership and has as its first stated goal “ensuring that language minority students have equal opportunities for learning the English language and for succeeding academically” (NABE brochure). Its literature clearly reveals a dedication to bilingualism in general rather than the primacy of Spanish.

It has been the tactic of the official-English movement to dismiss all research showing the positive results of bilingual education by labeling it poorly-done and therefore invalid. Porter does this in the book from which the above quote comes, while also misreporting the results of studies so that they show the alleged benefits of all-English instruction or ignoring the faults of such studies. A more objective review of the literature shows that programs that are really geared to bilingualism are successful in teaching minority-language students English and helping them reach high academic standards. Unfortunately, these programs are few and far between. Fillmore (1992) shows how the educational establishment, which reflects the prejudice against minorities characteristic of society in general, is responsible for setting up bilingual programs that are inadequate and geared to failure. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (1990) discusses how, worldwide, societies governed by monolingual elites set up educational systems which have monolingualism as the goal. However, language minorities in these societies by necessity must be bilingual. If they are forced into a monolingual educational setting, either in the majority or in the minority language, they fail academically; if they are allowed to develop high-level bilingualism, they succeed. However, the educational establishment rarely considers high-level bilingualism to be a desired and attainable goal for most language minorities.


Avila, J. G. (1983, October 16). The case for bilingual ballots. San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, 9-11.

Califa, A. J. (1991a, May 11). Language is not the barrier. The Washington Post, A19.

___ (1991b, November/December). The attack on minority speakers in the United States.

EPIC Events 4 (5), 6-7

Fillmore, L. W. (1992). Against our best interest: The attempt to sabotage bilingual education. In J. Crawford (ed.), Language loyalties: A source book on the official English controversy. Chicago: The University of Chicago

Hayakawa, Senator S.I. (1985). The case for official English. In J.Crawford (ed.), Language loyalties: A source book on the official English controversy.

Howe, M. (1990, January 7). Immigrants swell language classes. The New York Times, 26L.

Huddleston, Senator W. (1983). The misdirected policy of bilingualism. In J. Crawford (ed.) Language loyalties: A source book on the official
English controversy.

Ingam, C. (1986, November 24). Prop. 63 backers aim at bilingual education. Los Angeles Times, 3, 16.

Keyser, L. (1986, October 20). English–From sea to shining sea. Insight, 51-53.

The New York Times. (1991, November 11). Immigrants protest veto in English classes, A12.

de la Peña, F. (1991). Democracy or babel? The case for official English. Washington, DC: US English.

Porter, R. P. (1990). Forked tongue: The politics of bilingual education. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Rimer, S. (1992, July 6). Words no longer escape them. The New York Times, B1, B4.

Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M. (1992). The disuniting of America: Reflections on a multicultural society. New York: W. W. Norton.

Shumway, Representative N. (1988). Preserve the primacy of English. In J. Crawford (ed.), Language loyalties: A source book on the official English controversy.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1991). Language, literacy and minorities. London: The Minority Rights Group.

Sontag, D. (1993, June 29). A fervent “no” to assimilation in new America. The New York Times, A10.

Veltman, C. (1983). Language shift in the United States. Berlin: Mouton Publishers.

___. (1988). The future of the Spanish language in the United States. Washington, DC: Hispanic Policy Development Project.

Wolfson, N. (1989). Perspectives: Sociolinguistics and TESOL. Cambridge: Newbury House Publishers.

About the Author: Susan Dicker is Assistant Professor of English at Hostos Community College, CUNY. She is a member of the TESOL Sociopolitical Concerns Committee.

Copying or further publication of the contents of this article for educational, scholarly, and similar purposes is permitted with appropriate credit.

7 thoughts on “Exclusion through language”

  1. I can’t point you to facts off the top of my head, but I have heard the claim that English-language classes have very long waiting lists before. When I first heard it, it was used as evidence that an English-only amendment is unnecessary since people are embracing English anyway.

    In any case, I agree with you that making English the national language is not a good idea. For me, it’s akin to banning gay marriage multiple times without it ever being legal in the first place: it’s divisive and used specifically to foster anti-immigrant sentiment.

    Finally, it is very disappointing that Wyden sent that response. I’ll bet it was a staff member.

  2. Ok, well first having been raised bilingual, I personally attest to the advantages and have every intention of raising my children trilingual since my husband speaks yet a third language.

    Second, having lived in Europe for a few years now, where people are more and more required to speak multiple languages due to greater interaction, I argue that having bilingual or multilingual speakers is only going to benefit the U.S. in the long run, if it is to remain a key figure in the global scene (and more positive figure!). Some may argue that “well the rest of the world can just speak English.” However, without the benefit of being able to switch languages (which isn’t a matter of simple translation, but can alter one’s point of view), U.S. policy will continue to misunderstand and incorrectly assess international situations (the insurgency in Iraq being the most glaring and current example). As is commonly known bully tactics work in the short run, but not in the long run.

    If politicians were really smart they would be finding ways to capitalize on one of America’s greatest assets, diversity, rather than destroying it.

    The melting pot played a key role in my thesis and I am currently writing an article about my conclusions. When it is ready I’ll send it over! As a minority I have long wished the melting pot myth dead, but to my own surprise what I found is that the American identity is both the “melting pot” and the “nation of immigrants”. It is both unity and diversity. If I am right (and of course that is open to debate) than English-only is contrary to what it means to be American because it destroys unity and diversity.

  3. “If politicians were really smart they would be finding ways to capitalize on one of America’s greatest assets, diversity, rather than destroying it.”
    SO true. Which is why I see the official English movement as largely based in racism rather than logic. Personally, I’m against it because English is already taking over the world, and people’s languages are a big part of their identity. I think we should be as understanding and careful as possible about forcing English on people and take care to preserve minority languages (among speakers, hopefully, but at least on paper – it’s estimated that half of the world’s approx. 6000 languages will be dead or dying in 100 years, and we’ve already killed off so many Native American languages). That’s not the kind of argument that stands up in politics, but it matters to me. Think of the people growing up in former colonies who have to learn English to be successful in their business but know that the reason they know English is because it was the language of their oppressors.

    More practically, people need to get by in the time between getting here and mastering English. Americans of all people should know that you can’t learn a foreign language immediately.

  4. Making English the official language seems to me to be a non-issue. English is the de facto official language, or at least the lingua franca of the US. However, I have an opinion. I oppose mandatory use of Spanish in government notices, documents, signs, public service announcements, etc. This is an expansive and useless requirement. It serves no real purpose except to annoy people who understand both Spanish and English and don’t need to read or hear the same thing twice. Go to another country where the official langage is not English (Yes! other countries do have official languages!) and see if they provide you with English translations as a matter of course.

  5. Did you read Dicker’s essay before you commented?

    You use words and phrases like “non-issue, useless, and no real purpose.” Perhaps materials in Spanish would not be useful for you. However, this does not invalidate Dicker’s point, nor my own, that this is more about racism and xenophobia.

    What is the negative personal impact to you of materials that are printed in Spanish?

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