Toward a Monolingual USA? The Modern English-Only Movement

In this excerpt from Foundations for Multlingualism in Education: from Principles to Practice (Caslon, 2011), Ester de Jong shares an overview of the history of language policy in the United States. "Toward a Monolingual USA? The Modern English-Only Movement" explores contemporary language policy, including No Child Left Behind and the English-Only statewide ballot initiatives in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts. In addition, de Jong explores the complexities of historic and modern attitudes towards language use and instruction throughout the U.S.

For information about the language policies that preceded this period, take a look at the following other excerpts from de Jong:

A Modern Americanization Movement

Starting with California senator S. I. Hayakawa's proposal to make English the official language of the United States in 1981, the past 3 decades have witnessed a modern Americanization movement. Multiple policies have been passed that limit the role of languages other than English in federal and state government agencies and the work place by eliminating bilingual services such as bilingual ballots and bilingual education (Crawford, 2000; Dicker, 2003; Woolard, 1989).

In defense of their proposals, English-only supporters build on the popular image of the United States as a nation of immigrants who have succeeded economically by learning English and leaving their ethnic roots behind (Schmidt, 2000). They stress the need for one shared language for efficient government and communication and warn of the threatened status of English because of a perceived lack of motivation of the "new" immigrants to learn English (Wiley & Lukes, 1996). Bilingual services will keep immigrants and their children in ethnic ghettos, the argument goes, preventing them from accessing and participating in mainstream society and institutions.

By 2003, twenty-three states had declared English the official language of the state and constitutional amendments to achieve the same goal at the federal level continue to be proposed. Hawai'ian is officially bilingual, and four states (Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, and Rhode Island) have English-plus resolutions, affirming the value of bilingualism, English plus another language (See Map 6.1). Since 2003, four more states have declared English the official language (Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas), making a total of 27 states.

Map 6.1. State language legislation (2003)

US Map showing English-only legislation by state

The emphasis on monolingual (English-only) policies and assimilation has continued in the 21st century with the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the No Child Left Behind Act) and the passage of several state antibilingual education initiatives. These policies recall those enacted during the 1920s, when, as now, the country was suffering economically and the numbers of immigrants was increasing.

No Child Left Behind Act

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) dismantled Title VII as it had been known for 32 years (Crawford, 2004a,b; Evans & Hornberger, 2005). The new legislation allocates funds for native language maintenance efforts for indigenous language speakers (Native Americans, Alaskans, Hawai'ians). While bilingual education is not prohibited under the law, funds are no longer allocated under NCLB to support this type of program for ELLs.

Annual Yearly Progress

NCLB represents a significant change in federal educational policy in general. The ambitious goal of the act is to ensure that all children will meet grade level expectations by 2014. Increased accountability through standardized testing has become one of the main strategies to accomplish this goal. Schools and districts are held accountable for demonstrating that various subgroups (identified by race or ethnicity, special education status, and ELL status) make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward reaching the 100% proficient goal. The law specifies that all students should be included in statewide testing (participation rates), initially with a focus on reading and math but with the addition of science in 2007. To help districts reach this goal, the legislation has made significant funds available for schools to implement compensatory programs in reading and math during the school day and as after-school programs.

NCLB has specific provisions for ELLs. Although initially all ELLs had to take the mandated state test in reading and math, this provision was amended to exempt ELLs from taking the reading test for 1 year, and they do have to take the math test in their first year in U.S. schools. Unfortunately, school districts' test participation rates are not calculated with this exemption in mind. To meet their participation targets, many districts therefore feel obliged to administer the test to ELLs in order to maintain participation rates.

Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives

States also must formulate annual measurable achievement objectives (AMAOs) for ELLs. Each state has been required to develop and administer English language proficiency standards and an English language proficiency test that is aligned with those standards. States subsequently had to set targets for the percentage of students making progress on this test (AMAO 1) and the percentage of students classified as "proficient" on this test (AMAO 2). Finally, schools are required to monitor students who have been exited from their language program for 2 years (the so-called former ELLs).

ELL subgroups

Under NCLB much more attention is paid to ELLs and their academic and language progress. Their inclusion as a specific subgroup for meeting AYP has significantly increased the visibility of ELLs in school and school districts. However, while the notion of high expectations and holding schools accountable for the learning of all students are worthy, NCLB has been challenged in its implementation at the state and local levels.

Many scholars have pointed out that NCLB has instituted an unfair and punitive testing regime that has been particularly hard on ELLs. For these students, the use of inappropriate and invalid assessments for high-stakes purposes has been a major concern (Abedi, 2004; Menken, 2006). Since ELLs are still learning English, achievement tests developed for and normed on native speakers become a language test rather than reliable and valid measure of academic learning.

Curriculum and language instruction

The NCLB and its requirements for meeting AYP for all subgroups (including ELLs) has also had a significant impact on course offerings (Menken, 2008). Black (2006) reports a shift away from bilingual to English-only policies in one Texas school with a strong bilingual education program in response to observed lower scores of the English language learner population. Pressure to "ready" the students for the English test more quickly came at the cost of bilingual instruction.

Moreover, a broader narrative emerged that blamed students' bilingualism (i.e., instructional time spent in Spanish) for low scores on the standardized test (in English). Under pressure to assess in English and through standardized tests, linguistic and cultural diversity were no longer viewed as productive resources in the school. A similar movement away from bilingual approaches has been noted in California, where access to bilingual education has been greatly restricted for bilingual children (Gándara, 2000; Garcia & Curry-Rodriguez, 2000; Linton, 2007).

In addition to shifting away from a bilingual approach to an English-only approach to teaching, districts have also reported a narrowing of the curriculum. The measurement of progress through standardized tests in English that are heavily dependent on reading skills has led to an increased emphasis on basic reading skills in schools across the United States (Harper, de Jong, & Platt, 2008). In many schools, separate reading "blocks" have been organized to teach the discrete skills that are covered on the reading achievement test, frequently at the cost of higher-order thinking, higher-level reading comprehension skills, and access to authentic texts.

Moreover, students are expected to master the same skills at the same time as prescribed by strict pacing guides and reinforced by the administration of specific assessments (Gutierrez, 2001; Harper, et al., 2008; Wright & Choi, 2006). In addition to operating on a narrow definition of what literacy is, the homogeneity of approaches and expectations for reading development leave little room for addressing differences in second language and literacy development and issues of culture for bilingual learners.

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English-only Ballot Initiatives

Recent attacks on bilingual approaches to educating ELLs began in 1997 in California, when the politician and millionaire Ron Unz authored a ballot initiative (Proposition 227) to replace bilingual programs with an English-only approach to instructing ELLs. Unz's purpose was to gather enough signatures among registered voters that his measure could circumvent the legislature and be decided by popular referendum. On June 2, 1998, Proposition 227 was approved by nearly a two-to-one margin.

Since then, the same political strategy has been used to pass similar mandates in two other states: Proposition 203 in Arizona in 2000 and Question 2 in Massachusetts in 2002; both passed with a two-thirds majority. With Amendment 31 in Colorado on the ballot, voters were able to defeat an attempt to mandate English-only there (Escamilla, Shannon, Carlos, & Garcia, 2003). Oregon defeated a referendum in 2008, Measure 58, that would have abolished bilingual education in that state.

The three ballot initiatives that passed are framed within homogenizing discourses that stress that monolingualism in English is a prerequisite for national unity, that the position of English as a national language is threatened (particularly by Spanish), and that lack of English language proficiency is the cause of school failure for language minority students (Crawford, 1998, 2003; Galindo, 1997; Macedo, Dendrinos, & Gounari, 2003; Wright, 2005). These initiatives are almost identical in language with even more strict guidelines in Arizona and Massachusetts.

The preamble to the original California law establishes the primacy of English as the legitimate form of communication, declaring, "The English language is the common public language of the United States of America… [It] is also the leading world language for science, technology, and international business, thereby being the language of economic opportunity." The superiority of English is further reinforced in the section dealing with program accountability, which requires districts to document annual progress in English only. Learning in and through other languages is not validated as legitimate acquired knowledge and skills.

Each of the three state laws mandates that an English-only program placement (that is, sheltered English immersion) be the default placement for all ELLs. After 30 days of an English-only placement and only under specific conditions can parents request a waiver from this mandate to have their child be placed in an alternative program, such as bilingual education. Students older than 10 years, students who are already fluent in English, and students under the age of 10 with special needs are eligible for such waivers.

The waiver process requires a personal visit to the school by a child's legal guardian, and annual renewal of the waiver. Massachusetts and Arizona also require a 250-word justification that cannot be related to the students' linguistic needs (i.e., English proficiency level) and the statement will be placed in the student's personal folder. The cumbersome waiver process and the potential for rejection of the waiver by superintendents greatly undermine parents' ability to obtain waivers as well as the willingness of districts to establish the complex process of initiating and tracking students whose parents want bilingual education.1

The monolingual intent of the laws can further be seen by constraints on the use of students' native languages. In the sheltered or structured English immersion classroom, only limited use can be made of the native language (Section 2) and all instructional materials to teach content or literacy must be in English. The recommendation that districts place students from different language backgrounds together in the same classroom further discourages and seeks to limit the use of languages other than English by students and teachers.

A final key component of the laws is that their expectation that ELL participation in their specialized program is "not to exceed one year." There is an assumption that ELLs can acquire sufficient English in the course of 1 year of specialized instruction. Thus, limiting program participation further underscores the push to an English-only, mainstream classroom in an as short a time as possible.

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Maintaining Pluralist Approaches

While English-only and assimilationist policies dominate in the United States today, other discourses are being heard. As McCarty (2003) points out, despite homogenizing times, language revitalization and maintenance efforts that take place around the world show a continued desire for and recognition of the importance of diversity and language and cultural maintenance.

Revitalizing indigenous languages

Through the Indigenous Languages Act (1990) and the most recent Declaration of Indigenous Language Rights (2008), indigenous language speakers have formal, legal support for native language maintenance. Limited federal funding for indigenous language instruction under title VII of NCLB has continued.

A wide range of efforts to support indigenous language speakers' innovative efforts at language revitalization and language maintenance in the United States are on-going. McCarty (2003) describes several indigenous bilingual programs for Navajo (Arizona), Keres (New Mexico), and Hawai'ian Creole (Hawai'i). Some of these programs have been in existence since the late 1960s, such as the Rough Rock Community School (Francis & Reyner, 2002; McCarthy & Dick; McCarty, 1994; McCarty, 1998; McCarty, 2003).

Today this successful bilingual program is run completely by Navajo people from the community. The curriculum has locally relevant themes and offers formal language instruction in Navajo. The program's effectiveness has been important to help community members revalue their own language, "to resist and recast images of Navajo as 'second best.' This is a necessary reassertion of indigenous language rights" (McCarty, 2003, p. 36).

Two-way immersion

Another trend has been the growth of two-way immersion programs since the late 1980s. As additive bilingual programs promoting bilingualism and biliteracy for language minority and language majority language speakers, these programs also resist the monolingual hegemony of English. The positive outcomes that have consistently been associated with well-implemented two-way immersion programs have made them a serious alternative to English-only programs for teaching bilingual learners (Howard, Sugarman, & Christian, 2003; Krashen, 2004; Lindholm-Leary, 2001).

Heritage languages

Finally, it is important to mention the increased attention to heritage language teaching (Kondo-Brown, 2005; Peyton, Lewelling, & Winke, 2001; Peyton, Ranard, & McGinnis, 2001; Valdés, Fishman, Chavez, & William, 2006). Most heritage language classes that are offered through formal schooling involve classes for college students, although high schools are increasingly offering classes for native speakers of the language (such as Spanish for Spanish speakers) (Roca & Colombi, 2003).

In most cases, however, heritage language maintenance efforts for school-age children are community-based and hence fall outside the realm of federal or state educational policies. The growth in the number and range of heritage language programs or community-based language schools (including in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) illustrates the value and the importance that parents and ethnic communities continue to place on native language and cultural maintenance, despite pressures to assimilate (Cho, Shin, & Krashen, 2004; Crawford, 1999b).

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Multiple Discourses in U.S. Language in Education Policy

A historical view of how linguistic diversity has been treated in the United States illustrates that it has been seen as a problem and as a right, as well as a resource (Ruiz, 1984). This view puts some persistent misconceptions about immigrants, assimilation, and bilingualism in perspective. For example, the use of native languages for schooling has been around for a long time.

The myth that immigrants assimilated easily and quickly in the 1920s must be adjusted to take into consideration the difference between workforce demands and opportunities then and those we see today and actual school performance of different immigrant groups. Dropping out of school in the 1920s had less of an impact than it does today, because social mobility then was controlled less by formal schooling.

Policies are also not necessarily the same for different language groups. Looking back, policies toward slaves (and now toward AAVE) have been consistently assimilationist, reinforcing the hegemony of standard English. Policies toward indigenous languages have swung from overt coercive assimilationist to permissive bilingual approaches to the right to revitalize and maintain these languages (which is supported by international agreements). While immigrant languages were treated with more tolerance in the early years of nation-building, the symbolism of the 1900s Americanization movement that was able to link speaking English and assimilation with being an American (and fulfilling the American Dream) continues to shape policies toward immigrant languages (Olneck, 1989).

Although (some variant of) both discourses have been present throughout the history of the United States, the dominant role of English has never been questioned. Dicker (2000s) observes, "What emerges… is a kind of multilayered time line: English is a constant presence throughout, existing with other languages that appear and sometimes die out in different parts of the country at various points along the time line" (p. 47).

Like the conclusion by Alba, Logan, Lutz, and Stults (2002) that the viability of bilingualism, not English ability, should be the main concern in the study of language maintenance and shift (Chapter 3), the history of language policy in the United States illustrates that the main question is not about the status of English but what roles, position, and status are given to languages other than English as part of the U.S. imagined community.

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Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


de Jong, Ester. (2011). Foundations for Multilingualism in Education. Excerpt from Chapter 5, "Language Policy in the United States." (pp. 126-138). ©Caslon Publishing. Printed with permission, all rights reserved.


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  1. In fact, in California, many districts have failed to develop a waiver process or communicate to parents that this option is available to them (Gándara et al., 2006). Case studies of individual schools have documented that parents are either misinformed or hindered by barriers to access to relevant and accurate information (Garcia & Curry-Rodriguez, 2000; Maxwell-Jolly, 2000; Monzó, 2005).


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