Languages in America:
Legislation and Costs
Natalia J. Garland
Today's essay will serve as background for further discussion on what I
call the Spanish Language Movement. First, I will provide a history of
language legislation in America. These legislative measures and
attempts reflect America's concern for unity and upward mobility as
well as, unfortunately in some instances, racism disguised as concern.
Second, I will offer facts on the realities of a multilingual nation:
the costs of translation and interpretation services in America's
courts and other agencies. Third, it will be noticed in today's
material that the organization, U.S. English, has played a prominent
role in recent years in the official-English movement, and that Linda
Chavez was once associated with this effort. I will conclude with
reference to Chavez' views on bilingual education.
The following report
was originally published by TESOL in 1996. It traces language
legislation from 1980 to 1995. Even though it apparently has not been
updated since 1995, the report provides pertinent information over a
significant span of time. At present, it is not my purpose to agree or
disagree with the authors' introduction, but only to present their
A Chronology of the Official English Movement
by Jamie B. Draper and Martha Jiménez
Not since the
beginning of this century has language received as much attention
in the United States. Like the language battles of the early 1900s,
those of the 1980s were rife with appeals to patriotism and unity
casting language minorities in the role of outsiders who
deliberately "chose" not to learn the English language.
But unlike the earlier period, when these issues were confined
primarily to local and state arenas, the 1980s featured a campaign
orchestrated at the national level by a powerful and highly funded
lobby, U.S. English. Ostensibly, the whole purpose of this
organization is to establish English as the official language of
the United States, but its connections to immigration restriction
groups suggest a more far-reaching agenda. The irony of the
appearance of the English Only movement in the 1980s is that it
advocates a return to a mythic era of English monolingualism in the
face of growing demands for multilingual abilities in the world
At the beginning of
the decade, states already had measures on the books declaring
English to be their sole official language. Nebraska's
constitutional amendment dated back to 1920, when the country was
experiencing a wave of anti-German sentiment because of World War
I. An Illinois statute, passed in 1969, amended a 1923 law which
had declared "American" the state's official language. A
third state, Hawaii, adopted a constitutional amendment in 1978
designating both English and Native Hawaiian as its official
In 1979 the
President's Commission on Foreign Language and International
Studies released its report on Americans' "scandalous"
lack of foreign language ability Not one state had foreign language
requirements for high school graduation, and many did not even
require schools to offer foreign language instruction. Meanwhile,
bilingual education was coming under close scrutiny. Under the
Bilingual Education Act of 1968, federal funding had been available
for programs that maintained and developed languages other than
English. But in 1978 Congress amended the law to emphasize the goal
of competence in the English language and restricting support
programs only; no funds would be available for language maintenance.
At the same time, federal civil rights authorities were
aggressively enforcing the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, which
established the right of limited-English-proficient students to
special help in overcoming language barriers. Still, many school
districts resented the federal insistence on bilingual instruction.
The stage was set for a decade of debate on language in American
- Dade County, Florida, voters approve an "anti-bilingual
ordinance" prohibiting the expenditure of public funds on the
use of languages other than English. Fire safety information
pamphlets in Spanish are prohibited, Spanish marriage ceremonies
are halted, and public transportation signs in Spanish are removed.
- Senator S.I. Hayakawa, Republican of California, introduces a
constitutional English Language Amendment (S.J. Res. 72), the first
proposal to declare English the nation's official language. The
bill dies without Congressional action.
- The Virginia legislature declares English the state's official
language and makes English the language of public instruction.
- Senator Alan Simpson, Republican of Wyoming, introduces the
first version of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (later
known as the Simpson-Rodino bill). The measure would provide
amnesty to illegal immigrants who have resided in the United States
for a period of time and provide sanctions against employers who
hire the undocumented. It passes the Senate, but goes nowhere in
- U.S. English is founded by Senator Hayakawa and Dr. John Tanton,
a Michigan ophthalmologist who also heads the Federation for
American Immigration Reform.
- The California Committee for Ballots in English sponsors
Proposition 0 in San Francisco, calling for an end to bilingual
ballots. The measure passes with 63 percent of the vote.
- New York State passes sweeping educational reforms, including
foreign language requirements for all students. Non-native English
speakers may receive credit for proficiency in their native
- Indiana and Kentucky adopt English as their official state
language; these measures amend sections of the law code dealing
with state emblems.
- Tennessee declares English the "official and legal"
language of the state. The statute further requires all official
documents; communications, including ballots; and public
instruction to be in English.
- An immigration bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives
requires a "minimal understanding of ordinary English" to
qualify for permanent residency under the amnesty program. The
House and Senate fail to agree, however, on a final version of the
- The Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution holds hearings on
S.J. Res. 167, an English Language Amendment sponsored by Senator
Walter Huddleston, Democrat of Kentucky. Congress takes no further
action on the measure.
- The Education for Economic Security Act becomes law,
authorizing federal funding for the improvement of foreign
- In extending the Bilingual Education Act through 1988, Congress
creates several new programs. Developmental bilingual
programs offer students an opportunity to maintain their native
tongues after learning English; academic excellenceprograms
replicate successful approaches in bilingual education; and
family English literacy programs involve parents of
limited-English-proficient children. A limited amount of funding
(4 to 10 percent of program grants) is allowed for "special
alternative instructional programs," or non-bilingual programs
in which students' native language is not used.
- California voters approve Proposition 38, "Voting
Materials in English Only," sponsored by Senator Hayakawa
and other leaders of U.S. English. The measure places California on
record in opposition to the bilingual ballot provisions of the
federal Voting Rights Act.
- Secretary of Education William J. Bennett delivers a speech
questioning the effectiveness of bilingual education over other
methods, including the "sink or swim" approach. He calls
for eliminating the requirement that schools use native-language
instruction to qualify for most grants under the Bilingual
- Responding to Bennett's speech, the Spanish-American League
Against Discrimination coins the term English Plusin
describing the goals and benefits of bilingual education.
- In a Miami survey, 98 percent of Hispanic parents say it is
"essential for their children to read and write English
perfectly" (as compared with 94 percent of Anglo parents). A
Rand Corporation study reports that more than 90 percent of
U.S.-born Mexican Americans are proficient in English and more than
half of their children are monolingual in English.
- Two more lobbies for Official English are organized. English
First, a project of the Committee to Protect the Family, is founded
by Larry Pratt, a former Virginia state representative and
president of Gun Owners of America. Lou Zaeske, of Bryan, Texas,
organizes the American Ethnic Coalition "to prevent the
division of America along language or ethnic lines."
- Congress finally passes the Immigration Reform and Control Act,
including the English proficiency requirements for amnesty. Before
final passage, a Senate-approved "sense of Congress"
resolution declaring English to be the nation's official language
- Proposition 63 passes in California with 73 percent of the vote,
the first Official English measure passed by ballot initiative.
Included is a provision allowing anyone living or doing business in
the state to sue state or local governments for actions that
diminish or ignore "the role of English as the common language
of the State of California."
- Norman Cousins resigns from the U.S. English advisory board on
learning that 40,000 people in Los Angeles are on waiting lists for
English-as-a-second-language (E.S.L.) classes. He criticizes the
"negative symbolic significance" of Proposition 63 and
warns it could lead to discrimination against language minorities.
- The Georgia legislature passes a non-binding resolution
declaring English to be the state language.
- Official English measures are considered in 37 state
legislatures. They pass in five: Arkansas, Mississippi, North
Carolina, North Dakota, and South Carolina.
- North Carolina mandates foreign language instruction for all
students in kindergarten through the fifth grade.
- A Cultural Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,
recognizing "the right of the people to preserve, foster, and
promote their respective historic, linguistic, and cultural
origins," is proposed by Senator John Breaux and
Representative Jimmy Hayes (both Louisiana Democrats). Congress
takes no action.
- Linda Chávez, former staff director of the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights and director of public liaison in the
Reagan White House, is hired as president of U.S. English.
- The English Plus Information Clearinghouse (EPIC) is
established in Washington, D.C. A coalition of education, civil
rights, and ethnic advocacy organizations, EPIC seeks to centralize
information on the Official English/English Only movement and
respond to efforts to restrict language rights.
- In Gutiérrez v. Municipal Court, a case striking
down English-only rules in the workplace, the 9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals declares Proposition 63 to be "primarily
- The House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights
holds hearings on five English Language Amendments proposed in the
100th Congress, but takes no further action.
- Congress passes an omnibus bill affecting elementary,
secondary, and adult education. It increases to 25 percent the
portion of Bilingual Education Act funds available for
"alternative," non-bilingual programs. The new law
authorizes aid for model foreign language programs at the
elementary and secondary level and creates the English Literacy
Grants Program to support adult E.S.L. instruction.
- An internal memorandum by Dr. John Tanton, the chairman of U.S.
English, surfaces in the press. It warns that Hispanic immigrants
could be importing unwanted traits: "the tradition of the
mordida (bribe);" "low educability;"
Catholicism, which could "pitch out the separation of church
and state;" and high birthrates. Further investigation links
Tanton's funding to a eugenics foundation and a distributor of
nativist propaganda. These revelations prompt the resignations of
Tanton and Linda Chávez as leaders of U.S. English, and
Walter Cronkite as a member of the group's advisory board.
- Voters pass Official English amendments to their state
constitutions in Arizona (50.5 to 49.5 percent), Colorado (61 to 39
percent), and Florida (84 to 16 percent). Afterward, a rise in
incidents of discrimination against minority language speakers is
- New Mexico becomes the first state to endorse the policy of
English Plus. Washington and Oregon will soon follow suit with
their own English Plus resolutions.
- Voters in Lowell, Massachusetts, approve a non-binding
resolution requesting their state legislature and the U.S. Congress
to declare English the official language.
- Defying a well-financed lobbying campaign by U.S. English, the
New York State Board of Regents votes to extend eligibility for
bilingual education by raising the "exit criteria" for
graduation from bilingual programs from the 23rd to the 40th
percentile in English proficiency.
- U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt strikes down Arizona's
Official English amendment as unconstitutional. The measure's
requirement that state officers and employees "act in English
and no other language" is ruled to violate free speech
guarantees under the First Amendment.
- Alabama voters, by a margin of 89 percent to 11 percent, adopt
English as their official language. Official English measures have
now passed in a total of 17 states.
- President George Bush signs the National Literacy Act, which in
part promises increased funds for services to the limited-English
- Rhode Island endorses the policy of English Plus.
- In Garcia v. Spun Steak Company, the Ninth Circuit Court
reverses a lower court's decision that an employer's English-only
rule violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It finds that
bilingual English- and Spanish-speaking workers were not unduly
burdened by the rule since they could speak English fluently. The
case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.
- Congress passes the National Security Education Act, for the
purpose of providing American intelligence agencies and diplomatic
posts with more personnel proficient in foreign languages. The Act
provides scholarships for undergraduates to study abroad, grants to
colleges and universities to improve cultural and language training,
and fellowships for graduate students to study in other countries.
- The Languages for All Peoples Initiative is introduced in
Congress. It declares English the official language of the
government. It provides a tax credit for employers who offer
English language training to their employees. Also included is a
resolution recognizing the cultural importance of the many language
spoken in the United States while warning of the potential of
language diversity to foment societal discord and disintegration.
- The Amending the Immigration and Nationality Act is introduced
in Congress. This bill requires that citizenship ceremonies be
conducted exclusively in English.
- Governor Pedro Rosseló of Puerto Rico signs a law making
Spanish and English the official languages of the commonwealth, an
action which he hails as a step toward statehood.
- An official-English bill is passed by the Georgia Senate, but
discussion is stalled in the House and no action is taken.
- Governor William Donald Shaefer vetoes an official-English bill
passed by the Maryland legislature.
- Governor Tom Carper vetoes an official-English bill passed by
the Delaware legislature on advise from his Secretary of Health,
Education, and Welfare, but indicates that he will sign a revised
bill in the future.
- The Ninth Circuit Court upholds the decision for the plaintiff
in Yniquez v. Mofford, which found Arizona's
official-English amendment unconstitutional, U.S. English's appeal
- President Bill Clinton signs the Improving American Schools
Act, which includes substantive support for bilingual instruction.
- Proposition 187 is passes in California. It denies undocumented
aliens access to public health clinics, social services, and all
levels of public education, and requires state employees to report
suspected undocumented aliens to the Immigration and Naturalization
Service. Law suits have delayed its enforcement.
- Several new bills, variously titled the Language of Government
Act, the Declaration of Official Language Act, and the National
Language Act, are introduced in Congress.
- Three bills seeking to limit illegal and legal immigration and
to limit immigrants' access to government services are introduced
in Congress; the Immigration Accountability Act, the Immigration
Moratorium Act, and the Immigrant Financial Responsibility and
- Five more states pass official-English laws: Georgia, Oklahoma,
Montana, New Hampshire, and South Dakota.
[End of report.]
Costs of Translation and Interpretation
In order to balance
the concept of language rights with the actual practice of
multilingualism, I will offer information which I condensed from the
U.S. English website. For other examples and more complete details,
please refer to the U.S. English Resource Room: "Fact Sheets:
Costs of Multilingualism."
- A medical center in California (Alameda County) employs 18
full-time interpreters and 19 on-call translators, costing over $1
million per year. Among their patients, 22.4 percent have no
insurance, and 66.4 percent are on Medi-Cal Medicare. Medi-Cal
reimburses $23.77 for a regular visit. Interpreters are paid $18
to $20 per hour.
- The Virginia Supreme Court offers certification for people
interested in becoming Spanish court interpreters. The Court is
considering similar programs in Vietnamese and Korean. In 2002,
court interpreters cost the the Virginia taxpayers $2.7 million.
- Massachusetts provides drivers license exams in 25 languages,
Kentucky - 23, New York - 22, and
California - 21.
- The California Department of Motor Vehicles spends $2.2 million
per year to provide language translation services.
- In order to provide food stamps throughout the nation, $1.86
million are spent per year on written translations. In addition,
$21 million are spent on verbal translations.
- Los Angeles County spent $3.3 million to print ballots in seven
languages and to employ multilingual poll-workers in their March
2002 primary election.
- During the 2002 elections, gubernatorial, Senate, and House
candidates spent over $9 million for approximately 14,000
television ads in Spanish.
- Over $100 million have been spent to evaluate the impact of
- Air Canada spends over $9,265,000 per year to comply with the
Canadian government's bilingual requirements.
Finally, it has been
noted that Linda Chavez (she spells her name without the accent mark),
president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, resigned from U.S.
English after she became aware of John Tanton's remarks (see
1988 above). For more information on Chavez' involvement, and
for her views on immigration and language, please refer to her book,
An Unlikely Conservative. The following paragraphs are taken
from Chapter 9: "How I Became the Most Hated Hispanic in
America." She reveals her personal experience with bilingual
The idea of passing
a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of
the United States was not something I'd ever given much thought to.
In general, I was skeptical of constitutional amendments and had
even opposed a popular balanced budget amendment during my Senate
campaign because I thought it would unnecessarily clutter the
Constitution. I wasn't sure that amending the Constitution to
declare English the official language would ever be more than a
symbolic act, but I was very concerned about the semi-official
status Spanish was acquiring in many parts of the country. As
Miami's former mayor Maurice Ferre was fond of saying of his city,
"Where else in America can you go from birth to death in
Spanish?" In fact, in many places across the country it was
possible to attend public school, vote in federal elections, obtain
a driver's license, even take a pilot's exam, all in Spanish.
I was especially
concerned about the effects of bilingual education on young
Hispanics--an issue I'd been involved in since my days at the AFT.
In California and elsewhere, Hispanic youngsters were learning to
read and write in Spanish instead of English when they entered
first grade. Once enrolled in bilingual programs, they could be
stuck there for years, sometimes for their entire school lives.
Although many of these kids were recent immigrants or the children
of immigrants, others were Americans by birth, often third
generation or more. A Spanish surname was often enough to trigger
placement in a bilingual classroom, something I knew firsthand. My
middle son, Pablo Chavez Gersten, was almost placed in a bilingual
program in first grade, simply on the basis of his Spanish-sounding
name. The letter notifying me that he needed bilingual
education--even though he didn't speak a word of Spanish--was
written in Spanish as well, and I needed my babysitter, Margarita,
to translate it for me.
These kinds of
abuses were commonplace, something I'd learned a good deal about
when I worked in the Carter administration. A 1977 study of all
federally funded Spanish bilingual programs, released when I was
working at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, showed
that about two-thirds of the Hispanic students in bilingual
programs could already speak English but were kept in the programs
anyway, and the programs themselves were failing to improve the
students' performance in math and other basic subjects. Despite
such research, the bilingual lobby had become a powerful force in
Washington. No one dared take them on for fear of being labeled
anti-Hispanic, xenophobic, or even racist. I knew that if I agreed
to take the U.S. English job, I would become the most hated
Hispanic in America--at least among the organizations that
purported to represent the Hispanic community. But I also knew
that learning English was the most important thing
non-English-speaking Hispanics could do if they wanted to succeed
in the United States--and those who were discouraging and, in some
cases, preventing them from doing so were the real enemies of
Hispanics. I hoped that by becoming president of U.S. English I
might elevate the level of debate and give reassurance that there
was nothing racist or anti-Hispanic about promoting a common
language in this nation of immigrants, where most people had at
least one grandparent or great-grandparent for whom English was not
the mother tongue.
[End of quote.]
Questions for Further Exploration
There are several
questions which arise from today's material. If speaking a language
other than English is a civil right, should there be a limit on how
much tax monies are spent for translation and interpretation services?
Since most translation services involve Spanish, should equal amounts
of money be spent on all the other languages and dialects (up to 500)
spoken in America? Should the money spent on translation services be
spent on English classes instead? If speaking a language other than
English is a civil right, is it also a civil right to be monolingual?
And, are monolingual people within their rights to legislate English as
the official language of America? Is there, then, an impossible
co-existence between multilingual and monolingual civil rights? Who
are the true friends of Hispanics in America? In the weeks ahead, I
will be exploring these questions further. (Written 03/10/08: bibliography available.)
[NOTE: This is the
first preparatory essay for future writing on what I call the Spanish
Language Movement. To read the other preparatory essays, see Mexico's Cultural Imperialism
(written 05/18/08), Every Child Should Speak English (written
Until we meet