[This material may be used for educational or academic purposes if cited or referred to as:

Peter Tiersma, Language Rights, Bilingualism, and Official English,]

My chapter on Language Rights in the US is available online at SSRN.


What is Bilingualism?

    The term bilingual (or multilingual) can be used in various ways.  In reference to an individual, it generally means someone who speaks two languages (or more, in the case of a multilingual person).  When used in reference to groups of people or countries, it may describe a situation where people speaking different languages live in the same political or social unit.  Obviously, this situation exists around the world.  Examples of officially bilingual countries are Canada and Belgium.  Multilingual contries include Singapore, South Africa, and Switzerland. 

    As a result, we can say that a person is bilingual (speaks two languages) or is multilingual (speaks multiple languages, also called polygolt).  Or we can say that a country is bilingual or multilingual.  There have been a number of studies on bilingual people by various linguists and other social scientists.  I will focus here on some of the legal issues presented by bilingualism.

Bilingualism Around the World

    We often tend to think that it is a very natural situation for one country to have one language.  Germany is full of German speakers, French is the language of France, and so forth.  Yet even established western European nations have a fair degree of linguistic diversity.  Consider Sweden, one of the Scandinavian countries.  The native language of most Swedes is, indeed, Swedish.  But traditionally they speak Swedish in various dialects.  Furthermore, a river separates Sweden from its neighbor, Finland.  Rivers make good borders.  Yet they are not absolute linguistic barriers; in this case, there is a substantial Finnish-speaking community on the Swedish side.  Moreover, the north of the country is the home of the Lapps, or Sámi, whose language is related to Finnish.  And, of course, Sweden has its share of recent immigrants.

    Like Sweden, almost all western European nations are linguistically diverse not just because of recent immigration; most contain indigenous minorities as well.  Great Britain and Ireland, for instance, have remnants of Celtic languages which were once spoken throughout the British isles: Scottish, Welsh, and Irish Gaelic, as well as Cornish and Manx, which are severely threatened or have died out in relatively recent times.  Germany has a Sorbian (or Wendish) speaking minority in the east, and Frisian speakers in the north (Frisian is closely related to English).  The Netherlands, whose official language is Dutch, also has around half a million Frisian speakers.  Both Germany and the Netherlands have substantial immigrant communities, who speak eastern and southern European, as well as north African, languages.

    The official language of France is French, of course, but another Romance language--Occitan, which includes Provençal, the language of the troubadours--is still fairly widely spoken today.  Although France once had a relatively repressive attitude towards anything that was not French, it has more recently given official regional status to several languages, including Breton (a Celtic language that is still spoken by around half a million people) Basque, Catalan, and Corsican.  In addition, there are over a million speakers of a type of German in Alsace-Lorraine, as well as a small number of Dutch or Flemish speakers on the border with Belgium.  Many Gypsies still speak Romany.  Later immigrants to France brought along their own languages, including Arabic, Portuguese, and Turkish.

    Italy is another country that has far more linguistic diversity than many people imagine.  In addition to recent immigrants, it has no less than thirteen historical minorities: Albanian, Catalan, Franco-Provençal, French, Friulian, German (Tirolian), Greek, Ladino, Occitanian, Romany (Gypsy), Sardinian, Croat, and Slovenian.

    In all the above countries, there is a single national language that is widely spoken and which has been used for most official purposes.  That may explain why there has been relatively little linguistic strife in these countries.  Speakers of the majority language were plentiful and powerful enough to easily overwhelm--or suppress--minority linguistic groups. 

    Some European countries have experienced a fair amount of linguistic strife.  A well known case is Belgium, where roughly 40% of the population natively speaks French (the Walloons) and about 60% speaks Dutch or Flemish (the Flemings).  Historically, French speakers dominated their Flemish countrymen, leading to resentment by the Flemings. 

    Spain is another European country that has experienced some linguistic strife.  Early on, the Spanish realized the importance of language.  When Antonio de Nebrija presented his grammar of the Castilian language to Queen Isabella, who wondered what its purpose was, the bishop of Avila wryly observed that "language is the perfect instrument of empire."   The Spanish not only promoted their language in their empire in the New World, but at home also.  The policy in favor of Castilian Spanish was reinvigorated by Francisco Franco (dictator of Spain from 1939-75), who tried to banish minority languages such as Catalan (a Romance language spoken in the area around Barcelona) and Basque (spoken near the French border; it is unrelated to any known language).  The Franco policy has been characterized as "most drastic and oppressive attempt at unity in Spain."   Unfortunately, what it achieved was not unity but a fervent and sometimes deadly Basque separatist movement.  Now that Spain has become a democracy, the Catalans and Basques have gained substantial linguistic freedom.  Article 3 of the 1978 Spanish constitution still declares that Castilian (Spanish) is the official language of state and that all Spaniards ought to be able to speak it.  But it further provides that the country's other idioms are official in their respective autonomous communities.  In fact, the constitutuion specifically recognizes that "the richness of the linguistic modalities of Spain is a cultural patrimony which will be the object of special respect and protection."  

    The Russian empire likewise tried to use language to unify the diverse peoples within its territory.  Its policy was expressed in the maxim: "One emperor, one religion, one language."   When the Bolsheviks first took power, they adopted a more progressive approach.  They realized that the minorities in the USSR resented the pro-Russian policy, so their constitution guaranteed minorities the right to use their own languages in government and education.  The country was divided into 17 union republics, each of which could use its language for its internal affairs.  Inside each union republic were autonomous republics; they also were allowed to use their own language within the republic.

    Yet before long the Soviet government, like the tsarists before them, began to worry about the large number of linguistic minorities within its borders.  While officially adhering to multilingualism, the Soviets in fact implemented a new policy that promoted the Russian language among the many linguistic minorities in the Soviet Union, with the ultimate aim of gradually making Russian the language of a new Soviet nationality.  They also encouraged many Russians to migrate to non-Russian republics in order to speed up the process.  As recent events have amply demonstrated, those coercive policies created at best a forced sense of unity.

    The breakup of the Soviet Union gave new freedom to many linguistic minorities, such as speakers of Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Georgian, Uzbek, Turkmen, and so forth, all of whom were able to establish independent countries with their native languages as medium of government, education, and culture.  This was, of course, a positive development.  The problem that arose, however, was that virtually all of these countries had linguistic minorities of their own.  When it came to establishing their governments, many of these newly independent nations adopted policies remarkably similar to the tsarist or Bolshevik "russification" that they hated so much when they formed part of the USSR. 

    Georgia, for instance, is a country of over five million people.  The official languages are Georgian (spoken by around 65% of the population) and--ironically--Russian (spoken by around 9%).  Ten other languages are spoken, including Abkhaz, Armenian, and Ossetic.  Some of these groups are now in the process of trying to gain their own autonomy, but the process has not always been peaceful.

    The movement of Russian speakers into other regions of the USSR to promote russification has come to haunt the newly independent Baltic republics.  Each country made its indigenous language--Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian--official.  Yet because of the Soviet russification policy, around 40% of the population of Estonia in 1990 was Russian, as well as 28% of Lithuania, and 50% of Latvia.  As one Latvian leader rhetorically asked: "how will we be able to live in an independent Latvia where 50% of the population are Russians?  We would be subject to a permanent biological war, and if their birthrate is higher, then we would be threatened with extinction."   The Baltic states thus have made knowledge of their official languages a requirement for citizenship and promoted them in education and elsewhere.  This, in turn, has led to charges from Russians living in those countries that now their language is being discriminated against!

    One might conclude from the survey so far that bilingualism almost always seems to involve one group dominating another and suppressing its language, leading to resentment and resistance by the minority.  All too often that has been the case, although conditions have improved in recent decades.  One country that serves as an outstanding illustration that bilingualism need not lead to strife is Switzerland.  Most of the population (around 65%) speaks German, which in many other places might have been sufficient reason to make that language official.  Instead, the Swiss developed a federal model in which each of the cantons uses its own language.  For federal purposes, all four languages--German, French, Italian, and Rhaetian or Romansh--are official.

    In much of Asia and Africa, the situation has been compounded--or perhaps simplified--by colonialism.  In the typical situation, European powers came to occupy areas that contained various indigenous languages.  They made Dutch, English, French, or Portuguese the language of government and higher education.  Thus, when a country like India became independent after World War II, many of its leaders had been educated in English and were used to government in that language.  Moreover, English was the common language of the elite of virtually all Indian ethnic groups.  Thus, it was almost a practical necessity to make English an official language.  At the same time, there was strong sentiment for making one of India's indigenous languages official.  The problem was, which one?  India has over 350 different languages!  Many westerners have never heard of most of them--including Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, and Telugu--despite the fact that each of these languages has tens of millions of speakers, many more than familiar European tongues like Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, or Swedish.  

    What Indian leaders decided to do was make Hindi, spoken by roughly half the population, the second national language.  Making Hindi a national language might seem logical enough, but it was and remains controversial.  In the south of the country, over 150 million people speak Dravidian languages (such as Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam).   Dravidian languages are unrelated to Hindi, which belongs to the Indo-Aryan family.  If Hindi were the only national language, Dravidian speakers would have to struggle to learn Hindi in order to have access to government jobs and other benefits.  Native Hindi speakers (or those who speak closely related Indo-Aryan languages) would have a clear advantage.  With respect to English, however, all Indians are at a roughly equal disadvantage; it is equally "foreign" to speakers of all of India's languages.  Consequently, despite nationalist sentiment to have all government business conducted in an indigenous Indian tongue (Hindi), English has remained one of India's two national languages, and is often used for legal purposes.

    India, despite its many languages, has had very little linguistic bickering during its history as an independent nation.  Most unrest in that country appears to be religious in nature.  Language seems to have played more of a role in Sri Lanka, an island nation on India's southern tip.  Approximately three quarters of the population speaks Sinhalese, an Indo-Aryan language.  Most of the rest are Tamils, who speak a Dravidian language.  Although there have been tensions between the two groups for some time, ethnic relations worsened substantially in 1956 when the island enacted a "Sinhalese Only" law requiring all government officials to be able to speak Sinhalese (without requiring Sinhalese to learn the language of the Tamils).  Consequently, many Tamils lost their government jobs.   No doubt many other factors have played a role, but linguistic suppression of this sort commonly backfires, as linguering hostilities on Sri Lanka vividly illustrate.

    Another island nation in Asia reveals that a more progressive attitude can produce profoundly different results.  Singapore is often called the Switzerland of Asia for its cleanliness and efficiency.  Yet it resembles Switzerland in another sense: it has four official languages (Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil).  For a country of around three million people to promote four official languages is surely not the most economical approach, but it has definitely encouraged great stability.

    Most of the Asian countries discussed so far were European colonies for a period of time, but this was not univerally true.  Besides Japan, China is an obvious illustration.  Mandarin Chinese is its official language.  Many other Chinese "dialects" are widely spoken, but because they are all written with the same characters, the choice of Mandarin as official does not seem to have been especially controversial.  China also has many minority languages, some of which are official regional languages (such as Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uighur).  

    Various African nations, which typically have a great deal of multilingualism, were subjected to colonialism and have had to make choices like those confronted by India.   An example is Ivory Coast, whose roughly 13 million citizens speak approximately 70 languages, including Akar, Bete, and Senufo.  Yet French, the parole of their former colonial masters, is the official language.   Likewise, Nigeria's official language is English, reflecting its history as a British colony.  Hausa, Ibo, and Yoruba are official regional languages.  Others have official status within a locality, such as Edo, Efik, Fulfulde, Idoma, and Kanuri.  Overall, around 400 languages are used in the country, although some have very few speakers.
    Maintaining former colonial languages is one solution to the problem of inter-ethnic communication and the need for an official language.  Another is the use of a trade language or lingua franca.  Swahili is perhaps the best known illustration.  It is a Bantu language with much Arabic influence that has some four million native speakers.  Yet around 30 million people in East Africa--not native speakers--use Swahili to communicate with speakers of other languages.  Swahili has official status in Tanzania and Kenya.

    The New World also experienced widespread colonialism, but with some important differences from Asia and Africa.  One distinction is that many more Europeans emigrated to North and South America, creating a substantial base of speakers of languages such as English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  Moreover, the widespread immigration often overwhelmed indigenous people, killed many of them outright, or decimated the local population by introducing previously unknown European diseases.  The consequence has been that unlike Africa and Asia, where indigenous languages are still spoken by almost everyone, most new world countries are dominated by speakers of European languages.  The only New World country in which an indigenous tongue is the majority language is Paraguay.  The language is Guaraní, which is official along with Spanish.   Incidentally, if Greenland is considered part of the New World, then Greenlandic Eskimo is another indigenous language with official status (along with Danish).

    Beyond these exceptions, European languages are spoken by the vast majority of the population in North and South America, and are official in all nations in the hemisphere.  Still, there is a fair amount of bilingualism, created by both indigenous and immigrant languages.  Countries in the middle and lower part of South America (especially Argentina and Brazil) have had relatively high levels of immigration, including Germans, Italians, and Japanese, among others.  Brazil (whose official language is Portuguese) also has speakers of around 170 indigenous languages, such as Baniwa, Kaingáng, Ticuna, and Yanomámi.  Most, unfortunately, are threatened by continuing encroachment by settlers on the homelands of their speakers.   In the Andes region, native languages have fared somewhat better.  In Bolivia and Peru, there are still large numbers of speakers of Quechua and Aymara.   Nonetheless, Spanish is the official language in both countries.  Even though in Bolivia only some 35% of the population commonly speaks Spanish, it was only in 1999 that a new criminal code finally required interpreters in the major indigenous languages.

    Most Central American nations likewise have varying mixes of indigenous and immigrant languages.  Most notable, perhaps, is Guatemala, whose official language is Spanish.  Nonetheless, around half the population speaks one of several indigenous languages; most of them are Mayan.   The conflict in that country during the past decade or two owes its origins largely to suppression of Mayan culture and language by the Spanish-speaking elite.

The Linguistic Situation in Canada

    Proceeding to North America, the linguistic situation in Canada has garnered much attention in recent decades.  As is so often the case, the Canadan circumstances can only be understood against the background of history.  Although both French and English have official status, the French language--and by extension, its speakers--was long considered inferior.  At least in the past, French speakers (sometimes called Francophones) were "considerably lower on the socio-economic scale.   Furthermore, the federal administration functioned almost entirely in English.   Francophone Quebeckers thus felt that they were legally and economically inferior to English speakers, even within their own province.   Not surprisingly, this led to much resentment.  As one commentator has remarked: "Separatist tendencies grow in Quebec in direct proportion to the perception that French-speaking Quebeckers are getting a raw deal from Anglophone Ottawa."   Perhaps more ominous were demographic pressures.  The Francophone Quebec birthrate started to decline in the 1960s, while the number of immigrants (who mostly preferred English over French) grew.

    Despite the inferior position of French at one time, Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms now makes both French and English the official languages of Canada and declares them to be of equal status.  It provides that either language may be used to debate in Parliament, in court proceedings, or in communications with the government.  Statutes and records of Parliament are to be published in both languages, and each is equally authoritative.  Furthermore, if citizens are members of an English- or French-speaking minority within a province, they have a right to have their children educated in that language.

    Even though Canada is now firmly committed to official bilingualism, the French speakers of Quebec, numbering around 6 million and not increasing very quickly, continue to view themselves as a vulnerable minority surrounded by an ocean of English speakers.  Perhaps as a consequence, the government of Quebec has enacted the Charter of the French Language.  This charter largely negates Canadian bilingualism within the province of Quebec.  It states in the preamble that the French language is the instrument by which the people have articulated their identity, and that the people of the province wish to see the quality and influence of the French language assured.  Therefore, Her Majesty (yes, the Queen of England, moonlighting as the Queen of Canada), with the advice and consent of the Assemblée Nationale du Québec, enacts that French is the official language of Quebec.  It is the language of the legislature, of the courts, and of all statutes.  Provision is made for translation into English, but only the French version is official.  French is the sole language to be used within the government.  Only French may appear on traffic signs.  Professional corporations must be designated by their French names alone.  Employers may conduct written communications with employees only in French.  Associations of employees must use French in communicating with members.  Toys and games may not be offered to the public unless there is a French version available.  Signs, posters, and advertising must be in the official language.  Instruction in primary and secondary schools shall be in French, unless the child's parents were educated in English in Quebec.

    Quebec's language law also creates various bodies to implement and enforce it.  An Office de la Langue Française is charged with ensuring that French becomes the language of communication, work, commerce, and business in civil administration and business firms.   The Commission de Toponymie is to formulate and standardize geographical names in French.   Perhaps most controversially, a Commission de Surveillance is to investigate noncompliance with the act.   Fines will be imposed on violators.   In essence, Quebec has forcefully rejected Canada's policy of official bilingualism, replacing it with official monolingualism within the province.

    Many Anglophone Canadians are unhappy with Quebec's rejection of bilingualism within the province.  Residents of English-speaking provinces are annoyed that they are required to provide services in French to any French-speaker, while Quebec refuses to reciprocate to English-speakers within their jurisdiction.  For the time being, the situation appears to be at a stalemate.  Voters in Quebec recently rejected independence by an extremely narrow margin: 49.4% favored severing the province from Canada.   What will happen in the future is anybody's guess.

    Recently, Canada has started to give greater rights to speakers of its indigenous language.  Malcolm Greig has pointed out to me that on June 5, 2007, Bill 6, the proposed Official Languages Act and Bill 7, the proposed Inuit Language Protection Act received first reading in the Legislative Assembly. On June 6, 2007, both bills received second reading and were referred to this committee for scrutiny.  They're currently having public hearings (with translation into Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, French, and English). and

    Greig also observes that Nunavut used to be part of the Northwest Territories. The Official Languages Act recognizes eleven Official Languages in the Northwest Territories, and provides that the public has certain rights with respect to using those languages: See

Language Policy in the United States

    America is often called a nation of immigrants.  The very earliest immigrants, of course, were the Native Americans or Indians.  Many of them seem to have wandered over a land bridge that once connected Alaska to Siberia and then made their way down the hemisphere, although some people are now proposing alternative theories. Unfortunately, native American languages have changed so much over the millennia that it may be impossible to prove a linguistic link to Siberia (or anywhere else, for that matter).

    Most Native Americans and their languages seem to derive from waves of migration across the Bering Strait, which took place perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 years ago (some recent archaelogical evidence suggests that the date may be earlier, however).  How many languages came over the Bering Strait is a matter of some controversy.  The anthropological linguist Joseph Greenberg has posited that all of the hundreds of North and South American languages can ultimately be traced to three original languages: Amerind, Na-Dene, and Eskimo-Aleut.  His hypothesis suggests that there were three major waves of migration, in the above order.   Other linguists are much more cautious.  They would probably agree that Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut represent two original families.  But instead of one large Amerind grouping, these linguists posit dozens of different language families whose relationship to one another remains to be proven (if, indeed, it ever can be). 

    In any event, when the Europeans arrived in what is now the United States, they encountered tremendous linguistic diversity.  Some of the language families include Algonquian (such as Blackfoot, Cheyene, Cree, Menomini, and Ojibwa); Iroquoian (Cherokee and Mohawk, among others); Siouan (including Sioux and Winnebago); Uto-Aztecan (Hopi and some other Pueblo languages; Shoshone, Paiute); and Yuman (Mojave, Diegueño).  As mentioned, possible later arrivals were the Na-Dene, roughly synonymous with Athabaskan; this family includes some Alaskan languages, as well as Apache and Navajo.  The most recent arrivals spoke languages classified as Eskimo-Aleut (consisting of several related languages spoken in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia).

    When the Europeans arrived, they had little understanding of the tremendous linguistic diversity in the Americas.  Some apparently felt that the Native Americans did not have language at all, or believed that their speech was not comparable to European languages.  Columbus, for instance, wrote in his journal that he planned to capture six Indians and bring them back to Spain "that they may learn to speak."   The Spanish, as mentioned previously, viewed language as a way to establish an empire, in which Spanish was to be the common language and Catholicism the common religion.  To a large extent, they succeeded.

    The process was similar in what is now the United States.  Most colonists, unless they were traders or missionaries to the Indians, saw little reason to learn the native languages that they encountered.  Not surprisingly, the languages spoken in the more settled parts of the original thirteen colonies did not long survive the onslaught of European immigrants. 

    The situation with European languages in the original thirteen colonies was also more diverse than is popularly thought.  At the time of the Revolutionary War, many Germans lived in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New York.  There were a substantial number of Dutch speakers in New York and Delaware.   In the midwestern territories east of the Mississippi, most European inhabitants were French.  

    Interestingly, none of the original thirteen states found it necessary to declare English its official language.  This was true even in Pennsylvania, despite the famous fears of Benjamin Franklin.  The Philadelphia publisher was afraid that the many Germans in the state were not assimilating linguistically: "Few of their children in the Country learn English; they import many books from Germany; and of the six printing houses in the Province, two are entirely German."   He suggested that the Germans in Pennsylvania "will soon so out number us, that . . . we . . . will not . . . be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious."   In a few years, Franklin mused, it might become necessary to use interpreters in the state Assembly, "to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say."  

    Not only did Pennsylvania fail to declare English its official language, but during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the state published statutes and other official documents in German.   Pennsylvania, along with some other states, even allowed the establishment of German-language public schools during this period.   Despite the "Muhlenberg legend," however, German never came close to becoming the national language of the United States or of any individual state.

    The founders of the United States likewise seem to have felt no need to make English the official language of the federal government.  As in some of the states, early federal leaders were willing to use languages other than English for official purposes.  For example, the Continental Congress had many of its proclamations translated and printed in German.  It also authorized a German translation of the Articles of Confederation.

    Of course, authorizing an occasional publication in German or French does not mean that Pennsylvania or the federal government were implicitly endorsing bilingualism.  The founding fathers most likely considered it self-evident that English would be the language of government.  At the same time, most of them (besides Franklin) seem not to have felt threatened by the presence of other languages. 

    In contrast, the policy towards Native American languages developed into specific efforts to encourage Indians to give up their languages and cultures.  Treaties made in the beginning of the nineteenth century, such as that with the Chippewa, Menominie, and Winnebago,  provided for the establishment of schools for Indian children.  The schools were obviously intended "to encourage industry, thrift, and morality, and by every possible means to promote their advancement in civilization."   Apparently, many of the Indians were not particularly attracted by this prospect.  Later treaties made attendance at these schools compulsory.   The reason for these measures was explained by Indian Commissioner Price in 1881:

one of two things must eventually take place, to wit, either civilization or extermination of the Indian. . . . If the Indians are to be civilized and become a happy and prosperous people, which is certainly the object and intention of our government, they must learn our language and adopt our modes of life. . . . The few must yield to the many.

    Beginning with the Yankton Sioux in 1858, subsequent treaties explicitly required that children at these schools be taught to read in English.  On this website is a copy of the Ft. Laramie treaty with the Sioux, which has a similar provision. The federal policy of civilizing the Indian went a step further when, in 1887, it was forbidden to teach the Indian youth "in his own barbarous dialect."  The order, which applied to missionary as well as federally-funded schools, was propounded because "if any Indian vernacular is allowed to be taught by the missionaries in schools on Indian reservations, it will prejudice the youthful pupil as well as his untutored and uncivilized or semi-civilized parent against the English language."  Teaching English to native children was the first step towards teaching them the "mischief and folly of continuing in their barbarous practices." 

    Perhaps the most notorious implementation of this policy was the establishment of boarding schools.  Beginning with the first such school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1879, the boarding school was a mainstay of federal policy for the ensuing fifty or so years.   In these schools, where pupils were often hundreds of miles from their parents, the use of the native language was avoided, and students could be and often were punished for using their own language at play.

    The 1930's witnessed a change in American Indian policy, championed by Commissioner John Collier (1933-1945).  Collier urged that the Indians be encouraged to retain much of their culture and he reduced the emphasis on assimilation.  The use of native languages to promote learning in schools was encouraged.   Among the Navajo, for example, there was an experiment to teach Navajo as a written language in order to facilitate the acquisition of English.   And the Native American Language Act, passed by Congress in 1990, recognized that "the status of the cultures and languages of Native Americans is unique and the United States has the responsibility to act together with Native Americans to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages."

    Unfortunately, the reversal in policy came to late for many of the tribes.  Large numbers of indigenous American languages have become extinct, or are very near to dying out.  California, for instance, was home to dozens of different native languages at one time.  Today, many survive, but none are being acquired as a first language by children.  Revival efforts are underway, but it will be a difficult battle. 

World War I and Meyer v. Nebraska

     As mentioned, the American policy towards European languages other than English was in some ways more benign than its treatment of native American languages.  For the most part, it took the approach that they would probably die out naturally rather than needing to exterminate them.  But that attitude changed beginning around 1880.  This was a time of great immigration to the United States, and of corresponding anti-immigrant sentiments. 

    World War I added fuel to the fire.  The anti-German hysteria of the time even extended to other nationalities.  The Dutch in the Midwest, for example, had churches burned and felt obligated to switch religious services to English--even though the Netherlands was neutral in war.  On the federal level, the government enacted the Trading with the Enemy Act after the United States entered the war in 1917.  The law made it illegal to print or circulate a news item, editorial, or other printed matter in any foreign language if the topic was the government of the United States or any nation engaged in the war.  An exception was created if the publication, including a true and complete translation in English, was filed with the local postmaster.   Many school districts banned the teaching of German.  Some people went so far as to try to abolish the German word sauerkraut, replacing it with liberty cabbage.  Oregon prohibited any foreign language publications, unless accompanied by a literal English translation.  And the governor of Iowa issued a proclamation in 1918 against the use of any foreign language in the schools, in public, or on the telephone!  Over 18,000 people were charged under this and similar laws by 1921.

    Even in wartime, the constitutionality of this type of law seems highly questionable.  In fact, it was right around this time that the major case on language rights, Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 401 (1923), reached the United States Supreme Court.  In 1919 Nebraska had passed a law forbidding the teaching of any subject in a language other than English.  Furthermore, children could be taught to speak, read, or write languages besides English only after they had passed the eighth grade.  A teacher at a parochial school was convicted of violating the act after he taught a ten-year-old boy to read in German.  The Nebraska courts affirmed the conviction.

     The state defended the law on the ground that it was necessary to promote civic development and American ideals.  In the words of Nebraska's Supreme Court:

    The salutary purpose of the statute is clear. The Legislature had seen the baneful effects of permitting foreigners, who had taken residence in this country, to rear and educate their children in the language of their native land. The result of that condition was found to be inimical to our own safety. To allow the children of foreigners, who had emigrated here, to be taught from early childhood the language of the country of their parents was to rear them with that language as their mother tongue.  It was to educate them so that they must always think in that language, and, as a consequence, naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of this country.  The statute, therefore, was intended not only to require that the education of all children be conducted in the English language, but that, until they had grown into that language and until it had become a part of them, they should not in the schools be taught any other language. The obvious purpose of this statute was that the English language should be and become the mother tongue of all children reared in this state. ...
        The hours which a child is able to devote to study in the confinement of school are limited. It must have ample time for exercise or play. Its daily capacity for learning is comparatively small. A selection of subjects for its education, therefore, from among the many that might be taught, is obviously necessary. The Legislature no doubt had in mind the practical operation of the law. The law affects few citizens, except those of foreign lineage. Other citizens, in their selection of studies, except perhaps in rare instances, have never deemed it of importance to teach their children foreign languages before such children have reached the eighth grade. In the legislative mind, the salutary effect of the statute no doubt outweighed the restriction upon the citizens generally, which, it appears, was a restriction of no real consequence.

Thus, according to the Nebraska Supreme Court, the goals of the law were quite significant and easily outweighed what it regarded as the rather minor restrictions on the few citizens who might want their children to learn foreign languages.  Many of these justifications seem highly dubious, even outrageous today.  Most notably, linguists would point out that the fundamental assumption that it is harmful for children to learn another language before the eight grade is absolutely ridiculous.  This is by far the best time to learn one!

    Fortunately, the United States Supreme Court viewed things differently.  It held that a state can do much to regulate the lives of its citizens, but it must respect certain fundamental rights of the individual.  Using the constitutional jurisprudence of the time, the Court emphasized the teacher's right to carry out his occupation, as well as the rights of the child and its parents to see him educated.  More importantly for our purposes, these rights were to be enjoyed by everyone: "The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue."

    The Court was sympathetic to Nebraska's desire to "foster a homogeneous people with American ideals prepared readily to understand current discussions of civic matters."   But at least in this case, the end did not justify the means.  "Perhaps it would be highly advantageous if all had ready understanding of our ordinary speech, but this cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the Constitution--a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means."

    In some ways Meyer is more about the right to carry out one's chosen occupation and to educate one's children than it is about language per se.  And its emphasis on the liberty interest of the due process clause, something referred to as substantive due process, is seldom used anymore.  A modern court would probably have used the free speech clause of the First Amendment, or perhaps equal protection, to decide the case.  But as we will see, the issues raised in Meyer continue to resonate today.

    Another language case, Yu Cong Eng v. Trinidad, arose a few years later in the Philippines, which at the time was under American rule.  The Philippine legislature passed a law known as the Chinese Bookkeeping Act.  The law required that all account books be kept only in English, Spanish, or any "local dialect."  Presumably, local dialect referred to indigenous languages such as Tagalog or Cebuano.  As the name of the act implies, the law was aimed at Chinese merchants, and who typically kept their books in Chinese.  The stated reason for the law was to allow authorities--who could not read Chinese--to determine that these merchants paid their fair share of taxes.

    The Supreme Court observed that the Philippines was in a "polyglot situation" that presented many difficulties for government.  There were 43 native dialects or languages.  A number of people spoke Spanish, and younger people increasingly knew English.  In addition, Chinese merchants had operated in the islands for centuries; they accounted for a large part of the trade in the Philippines.  Very few of them spoke English, Spanish, or a native language; according to the Court, most communicated with the local population by means of signs or a patois.  Consequently, the act would impose a substantial hardship on them, and the need to hire translators or bookkeepers might drive some of them out of business. 

    The Supreme Court held the law unconstitutional, for reasons similar to the rationale of Meyer.  It held that the law deprived the Chinese businessmen of their liberty and property without due process of law and denied them the equal protection of the laws.  As in Meyer, the Court's focus was not so much the right to use Chinese in one's business, but the right of the businessmen to engage in a lawful occupation.  Nonetheless, the case reinforced the principle that discrimination based upon language should not be tolerated.

    During the 1920s and 1930s, immigration was scaled back considerably, so language issues receded in the national consciousness.  By now, the children of earlier immigrants were, no doubt, mainly speaking English.  Moveover, with the collapse of the stock market and the Great Depression, the nation had other things to worry about.

    On Hawaii, in contrast, high levels of immigration from Asian countries like China, Japan, and the Philippines continued during this period.  The territorial Supreme Court, in 1904, had already invalidated a requirement that horse and carriage operators to be conversant in English.   During this period Hawaii also extensively regulated private foreign language schools (mostly Japanese), which many children attended after going to regular English-language schools.  The law imposed fees, set standards for teachers (they had to be able to read and write English and "be possessed of the ideals of democracy"), and allowed the schools to operate no more than a limited time per day.  Taken as a whole, these regulations threatened the viability of the schools, and in 1927 the United States Supreme Court decided in Farrington v. Tokushige that this regulation was unconstitutional.  

    In the decades after World War I there was far less immigration to the U.S. than there had been before the war. Consequently, the notion that we need to Americanize immigrants largely faded away.  The immigrants from that period had largely been Americanized.

    During the 1980s and 1990s there has been another large wave of immigration to the United States.  As we will see in the next section, this has--quite predictably--led to renewed controversy regarding language rights and the role of English as our national language.
The modern Official English Movement

      The rebirth of the Official English Movement (the term favored by proponents) or the English-Only Movement (favored by the opposition) occurred during the 1980s and 1990s.  Its main spokesman was Senator S.I. Hayakawa from California.  He introduced the English Language Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1981.  Besides holding some hearings, however, Congress took no action on the proposed amendment.  

    The momentum of the movement then shifted to the states, where it has been quite a bit more successful.  To date, 24 states have made English their official language.  These state statutes vary quite a bit, however.  Many of them do little or nothing more than declare that English is the official language of the state.  Some of these laws have some teeth to them, however, and have been challenged in court. 

Arizona's Constitutional Provisions and Legal Challenges to It

    Probably the most restrictive English-only or Official English provision is Article XXXVIII ("Article 28") of the Arizona constitution, narrowly adopted by the state's voters in 1987.  Not only does Article 28 declare English to be the official language of the state, but it expressly provides that it is "the language of the ballot, the public schools and all government functions and actions."  It applies not only to the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of the State, but also to "all political subdivisions, departments, agencies, organizations, and instrumentalities of this State, including local governments and municipalities."  In fact, its scope reaches "all government officials and employees during the performance of government business."  Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Arizona law is its mandate that "[t]his State and all political subdivisions of this State shall act in English and in no other language."  This language is followed by a limited set of exceptions: to assist students who are not proficient in the English language, if necessary to comply with federal law; to comply with other federal laws; to teach a student a foreign language; to protect public health or safety; and to protect the rights of criminal defendants or victims of crime.

    One of the most important implications of Article 28 is that it would prohibit communications between any state official or employee and the public in a language other than English, at least with regard to any government business.  A Navajo-speaking state worker would not be able to explain how to fill out a form to an elderly man who speaks only Navajo.  Apparently, a state senator or the mayor of a largely Latino town could not address her constitutents in Spanish. 

    Article 28 would have an especially heavy impact on Arizona's native languages, all of which are to some degree threatened after being slated for extinction by former policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  Arizona is especially rich in the number and diversity of indigenous languages still spoken there, including Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, O'odham (Papago) and Yaqui; Navajo has the largest number of speakers of any indigenous language in the United States.  

    Only days after voters passed Article 28, a woman named Maria-Kelley Yniguez challenged it in federal court.  Yniguez worked for the Arizona Department of Administration, where she handled malpractice claims against the state.  Fluent in both English and Spanish, she had previously communicated with Anglophones in English; she addressed Spanish-speakers in their own language.  Yniguez asserted that by preventing her from speaking Spanish to clients, Article 28 violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. 

    The district (trial) court held the law unconstitutional.   On appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the lower court's decision was affirmed, first by an ordinary three-judge panel, and then in what is called an in bank procedure.

    At this point, the case went to the United States Supreme Court.  The Linguistic Society of America submitted an amicus brief in the matter, written by me (i.e., Peter Tiersma), that many of the justifications claimed in support of the Arizona constitutional provision did not hold water. 

    From the beginning, however, the Supreme Court appeared more interested in procedural issues than in the substance of Article 28.  The Court's ultimate decision, issued in 1997, reflected these concerns.  The Court unanimously vacated the opinion of the Ninth Circuit and ordered that the case be dismissed.  It did so for two reasons. First, the Court decided that the case was moot because Yniguez no longer worked for the state of Arizona.  Another reason for dismissing the case was that the scope of Article 28 was not entirely clear, according to the Court.   The exact scope of Article 28 was a critical issue that would have to be decided before the Supreme Court could rule on its constitutionality.  The Supreme Court basically told the parties that it was not the business of federal courts to determine the meaning of Arizona law. (Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43 (1997)).

    Even though the Yniguez case had now been dismissed, the meaning and constitutionality of Article 28 remained to be decided.  And it now appeared that those issues could only be decided in the first instance by Arizona state courts.     Fortuitously, at about this same time there was a lawsuit winding its way through the Arizona state courts, entitled Ruiz v. Hull.   In it, four elected officials, five state employees, and one school teacher challenged Article 28 in state court. They were all bilingual in Spanish and sometimes spoke it in their government jobs; they claimed that after the passage of Article 28, they feared prosecution if they continued doing so.  The plaintiffs asked the Arizona state courts to declare the law invalid because it violated their free speech and equal protection rights.  The case eventually reached the Arizona Supreme Court  (Ruiz v. Hull, 957 P.2d 984 (Ariz. 1998).

   The first question the court had to decide was the scope of Article 28.  The court concluded that Article 28 "explicitly and broadly prohibits government employees from using non-English languages even when communicating with persons who have limited or no English skills."   As a consequence, a public school teacher who happens to speak Spanish cannot discuss a child's progress with her parents in that language, even if the parents speak no English.  It would also be illegal for elected officials and citizens to have a town hall discussion in any language but English.  According to the Court, to deprive limited- and non-English speakers of access to information from government employees undermined one of the fundamental values of the First Amendment: the right of the people to participate in the political process and interact with their government and elected representatives.   The Court also held that Article 28 was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    Ruiz is clearly the most important modern case on language rights in the United States, unless and until the United States Supreme Court decides to review the merits of the official English question.  It clearly establishes that a restrictive law like that of Arizona, which broadly prohibits government and its employees from using languages besides English, is unconstitutional.  On the other hand, the many laws that simply declare English to be the official language of a state are almost certainly valid.  What would change the situation, incidentally, is if the English Language Amendment were to be adopted on the federal level.  Because such an amendment would be part of the Constitution itself, it would probably override the First Amendment with regard to languages other than English.  It is unlikely to be adopted anytime soon, however.

Another Challenge: Alaskans for a Common Language v. Kritz, ___ P.3d ___ (2007)

    ACL sponsored a ballot initiative in 1998 that made English the official language of Alaska.  It was approved by the voters and codified as AS 44.12.300-.390.

    The constitutionality of the law was challenged by public officials and state residents who are bilingual in English and Yup’ik, other native languages, or Spanish.  The lead plaintiff is a member of the city council for the City of Manokotak who has limited proficiency in English and performs his job exclusively in Yup’ik.

    The trial court issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the act and later, on the merits, held that it violated the free speech provisions of the Alaska constitution and declared the entire act void.

    ACL appealed the trial court’s decision to the Alaska Supreme Court. 

    The Supreme Court first had to determine the scope of the act.  It focused primarily on the first sentence of section 320:

Sec. 44.12.320. Scope. The English language is the language to be used by all public agencies in all government functions and actions. The English language shall be used in the preparation of all official public documents and records, including all documents officially compiled, published or recorded by the government.

The court held that the first sentence of this section is not limited to official or formal governmental actions, but requires that all government officials and employees in all levels of government use only English, even in relatively informal situations.  So interpreted, the court held that the act has an adverse impact on the free speech rights of not only private citizens, but also elected government officials and government employees who wish to communicate with members of the public in a language other than English.

    The court therefore applied the “strict scrutiny” test to the act.  It concluded that the government has a compelling interest in the goal of promoting the use of English, but that the act was not narrowly tailored to achieve that goal.  The court pointed out that, for example, funding English acquisition courses would probably be a more effective way to promote the use of English.

    Although normally such an analysis might require the invalidation of the entire legislation, the court noted that the Alaska act has a severability clause:

Sec. 44.12.390. Severability. The provisions of AS 44.12.300-44.12.390 are independent and severable, and if
any provision of AS 44.12.300-44.12.390, or the applicability of any provision to any person or circumstance, shall be held to be invalid by a court of competent jurisdiction, the remainder of AS 44.12.300-44.12.390 shall not be affected and shall be given effect to the fullest extent practicable.

    Because the constitutional problems were caused by the first sentence of section 320, the court severed it from the remainder of the act, declared it unconstitutional, and allowed the second sentence of section 320 (requiring English for official public documents and records, although such documents and records could also be published in other languages) to remain in force.  As to the other sections of the act, the court made no specific ruling but suggested that they should be strictly interpreted in light of its decision in this case. 

    It might seem that the court “split the baby,” to use a violent and only partially apt metaphor.  The court was obviously reluctant to strike down a popular initiative measure in its entirely.  So it invalidated just one sentence.  In fact, however, the bottom line is that the Alaska act is now mainly declaratory or symbolic, and therefore poses relatively little direct danger to speakers of languages other than English.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I--that it so say, Peter Tiersma--filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Linguistic Society of America in this case, urging that the law be struck down as unconstitutional.]  

Bilingual Services

    When should a government provide bilingual services to those who do not speak the predominant or official language?  Until the last century, governments offered very few services to their peoples, so the issue may not have seemed all that urgent.  With the widespread availability today of public education, welfare programs, and similar services, the question has become more pressing.  The problem has also become more difficult with the increase in immigration throughout the world.  With contiguous bilingualism, as in Switzerland, it was relatively easy to establish French-speaking schools in French-speaking cantons.  Yet in today's large modern cities, where children in a single school district may speak dozens or sometimes hundreds of different languages, the challenges can be immense.

Welfare Services

    In the United States, courts have generally been reluctant to require the government to provide welfare services in languages other than English.  Perhaps the best-known American case is Guerrero v. Carlson, 512 P.2d 833 (Cal. 1973).  The plaintiffs were on Aid to Families with Dependent Children when they received a mailed notice that their benefits were about to terminate or be cut off.  It also explained that they had a limited time to appeal.  Although welfare workers knew that the plaintiffs spoke Spanish, they nonetheless sent the notice only in English.  As a result, the plaintiffs claimed they lost their chance to appeal the termination of benefits. 

    The California Supreme Court noted that in spite of the early Spanish culture in California, "the United States is an English speaking country."   It quoted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who dissented in Meyer v. Nebraska, for the proposition that "all citizens of the United States should speak a common tongue."   More to the point, the Court commented that when people receive an official notice of this type but do not understand it, they should ask bilingual relatives or a legal aid office for a translation.  Finally, the Court wondered aloud where the process would stop if it held that these welfare documents should have been translated into Spanish.  Would it mean that all state forms would have to be published in Spanish?  Moreover, California has speakers of many different languages.  The Court specifically mentioned Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Greek, Filipino, and Samoan.  It left out dozens and probably hundreds of other languages spoken in California (230, at last count), some with very few speakers.

    For all of the above reasons, the Court decided that the state was not required to provide these welfare forms in any language besides English.   Most other American courts to consider the matter have come to the same conclusion. 

Interpretation in Court

    What if a non-English speaker has a run-in with the law.  Does he have a right to have legal proceedings against him translated into a language that he can understand?  Courts have long used interpreters, of course.  But in the past, those interpreters were often used only to translate foreign-language testimony of witnesses into English, so that the judge, lawyers, and court reporter would understand it.

    This scheme was challenged in United States ex rel. Negron v. State of New York, 434 F.2d 386 (2d Cir. 1970).   Negron, a native of Puerto Rico, was convicted of murdering one of his housemates.  Negron spoke little or no English, and his lawyer spoke no Spanish.  The prosecution hired an interpreter, who translated the Spanish of witnesses into English.  During breaks in the trial, the interpreter would sometimes summarize the proceedings in Spanish for Negron, but at other times she went home and remained on call. 

    The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit observed that much of the trial must have been a "babble of voices" for Negron.  Most of the witnesses spoke untranslated English.  Especially important was one witness who testified that Negron had admitted to him that he killed the victim because the victim called him a cabrón (cuckold).  The Second Circuit continued by noting that the Sixth Amendment gives an accused the right to confront the witnesses against him, which necessarily requires that the accused understand their testimony.  Moreover, basic principles of fairness dictate that a criminal defendant be able to assist his attorney in his own defense.  This again requires that the defendant understand the proceedings, something that haphazard summaries would not allow.   The court concluded that a non-English speaking criminal defendant has a constitutional right to the assistance of a translator throughout the proceedings.  If he cannot afford one, the state must pay for it.  Incidentally, the same rule applies to deaf defendants.

    The quality of interpretation is also important.  Languages usually have different dialects, for instance, and these differences need to be recognized.  In one case, someone asked a Cuban man for a loan; he replied in Spanish: Hombre, ni tengo diez kilos.  The prosecution used this statement as the basis for a drug charge.  In fact, it appears that in the defendant's Cuban Spanish, kilos often refers to money ("I do not have ten cents").  Fortunately, his conviction was later overturned.  

    Another issue, pointed out by Susan Berk-Seligson, is that interpreters do not simply melt into the background.  They can influence the impact of testimony in various ways.  For instance, an interpreter may take a defendant's nonstandard, slang-ridden Spanish, and translate it into quite correct, formal English.  For better or worse, this might create a different image of the defendant than is really the case.  Or an interpreter might translate a foreign language term as glasses or goggles, because it could mean either.  To jurors, however, it might seem that the witness is uncertain, leading them to unjustifiably downgrade the value of the testimony.   

     To sum up, the right of a criminal defendant to have all of the trial interpreted is quite clear.  But there is still some uncertainly regarding when a non-English speaker in other judicial proceedings will receive the services of an interpreter, as well as what type of interpretation should be provided.

Bilingual Education.

    The debate of over language rights has become even more heated with regard to bilingual education.  For quite some time, American educators did relatively little to address the specific needs of children who spoke little or no English.  Most immigrants simply found themselves in English-speaking classes and were expected to "sink or swim."

    This situation changed in the mid 1970s.  A group of Chinese schoolchildren sued the San Francisco school district in Lau v. Nichols,  414 U.S. 563 (1974).   There were at the time around 3000 children of Chinese ancestry who did not speak English.  A majority of them did not receive any supplemental help in learning English.  The students argued to the United States Supreme Court that the district's failure to address their linguistic needs violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

    The Court began its analysis by noting that treating all children alike did not necessarily produce educational equality.  "There is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education."  Despite the references to equality, however, the Court did not decide whether the district's policies violated Equal Protection.  Rather, it held that the Civil Rights Act required a school district receiving federal funds to take affirmative steps to rectify the "language deficiency" of non-English speaking children.

    What sorts of affirmative steps must a school district take?  Clearly, "sink or swim" is ruled out.  But beyond that, the Supreme Court left the field open to any educationally sound approach.  Courts have declared that Lau does not require that all children receive bilingual education.   Consequently, in the years since Lau various methods have been taken to teach English to what are called LEP (limited English proficient) and NEP (non-English proficient) children.   These include:

    Immersion/submersion:  Both immersion and submersion involve placing children into an English-speaking environment (typically, a classroom).  The basic idea is that the more a child is exposed to English, the faster the child will learn it.  The problem, as linguist Stephen Krashen has pointed out, is that language learning happens only with comprehensible input.   No one seriously believes that the best way to learn Mongolian is to go there and simply listen to Mongolians speaking, because you hear nothing but a babble of voices.  This approach is sometimes called submersion, or the old "sink or swim" method.  Immersing oneself in a language is much more effective when it is accompanied with teaching.  You would learn Mongolian far more quickly if you spent each morning with a language teacher who could explain things to you in English, and then practiced with real Mongolians (who deliberately spoke simply and slowly) in the afternoon.  In an American educational context, this approach (sometimes called structured immersion) involves teaching LEP or NEP children in English, but with bilingual teachers who often stop to explain or translate something.  Thus, children are surrounded by English, but should understand what is happening in class.  Unlike the old "sink or swim" approach, the teacher is in the water with them, showing them how to swim.  A drawback is that this approach requires bilingual teachers (often in short supply) and requires separate classes for LEP or NEP students speaking each language.
    ESL:  English as a Second Language (ESL) is another way to deal with LEP or NEP children.  Here, students are taught in ordinary classes, along with English speakers.  They receive ESL instruction after school, or are taken out of their classes for a while.  This is similar to structured immersion, except that the children's ordinary teacher does not explain things in their language (and is probably not bilingual).  It may be the easiest option for the school, because all it has to do is hire one or two ESL instructors; the rest of the curriculum is unaffected.  On the other hand, the LEP and NEP children may start to fall behind in their coursework because they may not understand their teachers very well.
    Bilingual Education:  The basic idea behind bilingual education is that children should be taught for the first few years in their own language.  In this way, they should not get behind in substance, which is a potential problem with alternative approaches.  Also, they should learn the basics of literacy in a language they can understand; once literate in their own language, that knowledge should be transferred fairly readily to English.  At the same time that the children are learning substantive material in languages like Spanish and Vietnamese, they receive instruction in the English language.  Ideally, their English should advance quickly enough that they can be "mainstreamed" into an English-speaking class after about three years.

    During the 1980s, bilingual education programs were widely implemented throughout the United States.  But it quickly became controversial.  One of the goals of U.S. English (the main organization supporting "English Only") was to eliminate it, although that effort has never fully succeeded. 

      Because it is home to so many recent immigrants, California is the state with the largest number of LEP and NEP students: roughly 1.4 million, or around a quarter of all public school students.   Moreover, the numbers have burgeoned in recent years, leaving school officials largely unprepared.  In 1982 the Los Angeles Unified School District had around 121,000 LEP students.  By 1994, just over ten years later, the number had more than doubled to almost 300,000, or about half of its total enrollment.   The district did its best to implement enough bilingual classes for all of these students, but often had to rely on teachers who were not fully qualified (typically, a class would be taught by an English-speaking teacher and a bilingual aid, who translated into Spanish or some other language).  And teaching materials were often in short supply.

    Meanwhile, the opposition continued.  California had once been renowned for its educational system.  Now, test results in the state were greatly below national averages in almost all areas; sometimes California students ranked virtually at the bottom.  In reality, some of the state's students (often first generation immigrants or their children) performed remarkably well.  At the other extreme, schools in the inner city--often attended by children of Central American immigrants--tended to have quite low test results.  Rather than blaming poverty, crowded living conditions, or gang activity, many Californians were convinced that the culprit was bilingual education.  In actuality, only around 30% of the LEP students were taught the core curriculum in their primary language; the other 70% received all their instruction in English.

    Interestingly, this was not just the sentiment of the white middle class.  In 1996, Latino parents whose offspring attended Ninth Street School, near downtown Los Angeles, had their children boycott classes because the school refused to provide English-only instruction.  According to Jovita Ruiz, a Mexican immigrant whose 7-year-old daughter attends the school: "We want our children to be taught in English . . . that's why we came to the United States . . . If not, better to keep her in my country. There she can learn in Spanish."   Although many other Latino parents continue to support bilingual education, the boycott revealed increasing frustration that children were not acquiring English quickly enough.  These feelings were confirmed by studies showing that only around 5% of children in the state's bilingual education programs were moved into English-language classes each year.

    In a move that seems typically Californian, the most recent word comes not from the state legislature, or from the federal government, or from the educational establishment, but rather from a Silicon Valley businessman who had come to the conclusion that bilingual education was largely responsible for low test scores in the state.  He bankrolled the process of placing an initative on the ballot, which passed by a 61% majority of the electorate in 1998.  The new law states that school districts may not educate children bilingually unless their parents specifically request a waiver, which a majority of parents have not done.     Bilingual education is still common in many other states.  Whether they will follow the example of California--which is often a trendsetter--remains to be seen.  Perhaps California is in a unusual situation.  Especially its Spanish speakers often live in areas where virtually everyone speaks Spanish, where newspapers, radio, and television are also in that language, and where schools consist almost entirely of Spanish-speaking students.  It is no wonder that children growing up in this situation are somewhat slower to acquire English than children who live in more mixed neighborhoods, where English is spoken on the street.  Demographic factors--the educational level and income of the parents, for instance--are also quite important.   It is not especially surprising that middle-class Anglophone children learned French quite well in an immersion program in Quebec that began during the 1960s.   That does not mean that immersion is the solution for all children.  How well children learn English may depend much more on their home background, their neighborhood, and the quality of their schools and teachers than the specific teaching methodology. 

    One factor that is almost never taken into account in the United States, however, is how well these programs maintain the child's native language.  No matter which program educators choose, their stated aim is invariably to convert the child into a speaker of English, with little thought given to what happens to the child's native language.  In fact, it seems likely that much of the popular opposition to bilingual education has come from a fear that it will encourage such maintenance.  It is highly ironic that in a country where people have so little success in learning foreign languages, we should should be so unconcerned about this loss.  Children who grow up in a Chinese-speaking household, and then learn English in school, often have to take Chinese classes in high school or college to reacquire the language.  This is a terrible waste.  As Education Secretary Richard Riley recently emphasized, every American student should speak at least two languages.   Children who grow up bilingually can easily meet that goal.  Moreover, they can be critical in promoting foreign trade with their countries of origin, an ever more important part of the economy.

    Presumably, educational experts and linguists are carefully studying the education of LEP and NEP children throughout the country.  One can only hope that future decisions about how to educate such children are made on the basis of solid research, rather than emotionalism or politics.
A Human Right to Language?

    The development of linguistic rights in the United States--and many other countries--has obviously been a somewhat tortuous one.  Fortunately, there seems to be an emerging consensus among the world's nations that minority languages must be respected.

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not specifically protect language rights, but it does declare that "everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, [or] language ..."  

    Other international agreements are more specific.  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that someone charged with a crime has the right:

    (a) To be informed promptly and in detail in a language he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him; . . .
    (f) To have the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand or speak the language used in court.

    Even more specific is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging To National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.  It requires states to protect the existence of linguistic and other minorities within their territory.   Members of such minorities have the right to:

    --use their own language in public and in private;
    --participate effectively in public life;
    --participate effectively in decisions that affect them;
    --establish and maintain their own associations;
    --maintain peaceful contact with other members of their group, including those across frontiers;
    --have adequate opportunities to learn their mother tongue or to have instruction in their mother tongue;
    --learn about their history, traditions, language, and culture; and
    --participate fully in the economic progress and development in their country.

    Rights for minority languages are especially critical with regard to indigenous people.  If French or German or Spanish dies out in the United States, those languages and their related cultures will still flourish in their native lands.  But if Hopi or Navajo or Sioux dies out in this country, the language will be lost forever, as will much of the culture embedded in it.  Indigenous languages are facing extinction in unprecedented numbers, especially with the pervasive influence of the mass media.  At the beginning of the 19th Century, there were 300,000 speakers of about 100 native languages in California.  Today, half have disappeared, and the rest are severely threatened.  Not a single California Indian language is transmitted to children in the usual way in the household.  Nationally, the situation is somewhat better, especially in the southwest.  There are around 175 indigenous languages still spoken in the United States.  Unfortunately, only about 20 are still being learned as a first language by children.   The situation is depressingly similar in many other countries.

    Fortunately, there are efforts to maintain and even revive endangered languages.   Recognizing linguistic rights is an important part of that effort.  If we do not act quickly, the world will soon be culturally and linguistically a far less interesting place.


Links to language rights sites, English-only groups, etc.

Select Bibliography (in legal citation format):

Charlotte Hoffmann, An Introduction to Bilingualism  (1991).

David Crystal, An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Language and Languages (1992).

James Crawford, Language Loyalties: A Source Book on the Official English Controversy  (1992).

Language Policy and National Unity  (William R. Beer & James E. Jacob eds., 1985).

James Crawford, Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of "English Only" 238 (1992).

Langue et Droit [Language and Law] (P. Pupier & J. Woehrling eds., 1989).

Ayo Bamgbose, Language and the Nation: The Language Question in Sub-Saharan Africa (1991).

Linguistic Human Rights: Overcoming Linguistic Discrimination (Tove Skutnabb-Kangas & Robert Phillipson eds. 1994).

Perspectives on Official English: The Campaign for English as the Official Language of the USA (Karen L. Adams & Daniel T. Brink eds., 1990).

Dennis Baron, The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? (1990).

Nancy Faires Conklin & Margaret A. Lourie, A Host of Tongues: Language Communities in the United States (1983)

Heinz Kloss, The American Bilingual Tradition (1977).

Language in the USA (Charles A. Ferguson & Shirley Brice Heath eds. 1981).

Language Loyalty in the United States: The Maintenance and Perpetuation of Non-English Mother Tongues by American Ethnic and Religious Groups  (Joshua A. Fishman et al. eds., 1966).

William G. Ross, Forging New Freedoms: Nativism, Education, and the Constitution, 1917-1927  (1994).

Susan Berk-Seligson, The Bilingual Courtroom: Court Interpreters in the Judicial Process  (1990).

James Crawford, Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory & Practice (3d ed. 1995).

Keith Baker & Adriana de Kanter, Bilingual Education  (1983).

M. Krauss, The World's Languages in Crisis, 68 Language 1 (1992).

 [source: \future projects\linglaw\ch12]
updated Nov. 5, 2007

  Back to