California Vote Gives Boost To ‘English-Only’ Movement

By James Crawford — April 01, 1987 8 min read

When Californians voted by a 3-to-1 margin last fall to declare English the state’s official language, evidence suggests they did not intend to strike a blow against bilingual education. But that now appears to be the political effect.

As legislators prepare to vote this year on whether to extend the state’s bilingual-education law, its supporters express pessimism about their chances of keeping the program intact, citing the fallout from Proposition 63.

In a national context, the measure’s approval has been a boon to the “English-only’’ movement, the best organized opposition that bilingual education has yet faced. This year, 31 states are considering official-language laws. Seven states had passed such measures before California, and in February, in a unanimous vote by the legislature, Arkansas became the ninth.

Legally, these statutes and constitutional amendments may have no direct effect on bilingual programs. But voter enthusiasm for such measures—as well as the letter-writing campaigns that the issue has generated, usually featuring attacks on native-language instruction—has not gone unnoticed by politicians.

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Coordinating much of this activity is U.S. English, an advocacy group founded in 1983 by S.I. Hayakawa, a former U.S. Senator from California, to promote an official-language amendment to the U.S. Constitution. From a tiny lobbying group, U.S. English has mushroomed into a nearly $7-million-a-year operation with 275,000 dues-paying members across the country.

The group’s main premise is that bilingualism poses a growing “threat to English’’ as the unifying force in American society. It warns that the nation is being “divided along language lines,’' as ethnic minorities, particularly Hispanics, insist on retaining their native languages and cultures instead of joining the English-speaking mainstream.

While limited amounts of native-language instruction may do no harm, the group says, prolonged bilingual education not only discourages children from learning English, but also “sends them a message’’ that they have no obligation to do so.

Powerful Appeal

This argument has found a receptive ear among many Americans, particularly in areas where a backlash is growing against ethnic minorities and the government’s provision of special language programs.

In 1985, U.S. English generated the bulk of comments supporting the U.S. Education Department’s proposed regulations on bilingual education. Along with arguments that immigrant children should be taught English more quickly, for their own benefit, many letters expressed racial fears and animosity. (See Education Week, March 19, 1986.)

Hispanic leaders and public officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, have denounced the English-only movement as divisive, exclusionary, and racist. They opposed California’s English-language amendment as a threat to the civil rights of language minorities.

Gerda Bikales, executive director of U.S. English, calls the charges “a very vicious series of attacks against those who would oppose the mindless drift toward a bilingual society in the United States.’'

How could 73 percent of California voters be racist? she asks, noting that 54 percent of Hispanics favored Proposition 63 in pre-election polls. Surveys by the Los Angeles Times also showed that few voters were aware that the ballot initiative could curtail most foreign-language services now offered by the state and its municipalities.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of semantics at Stanford University, says the approval of Proposition 63 will make it “harder for immigrants who have not yet mastered English to enter the social and economic mainstream,’' while doing nothing to help them learn English.

“The fact is that immigrants are desperate to learn English,’' he says, noting that last year, in Los Angeles County alone, 50,000 adults were turned away from English-as-a-second-language programs.

Drafters of the U.S. Constitution rejected official-language provisions, Mr. Nunberg argues, “precisely because they believed citizens would agree on language standards out of their own free will. English has become the most spectacularly successful language in the world—without state interference.’'

“People are often willing to learn a second language, nowhere more so than in America,’' he adds, “because they perceive social and economic advantages to doing so. Language conflicts arise precisely where one group tries to impose its language on another by force of law.’'

‘Hidden Agenda’

Joshua Fishman, a professor of psychology at Yeshiva University, questions the sudden concern for the “functional protection of English.’' How, he asks, is English endangered in a country where it is spoken by 97 percent of the population; where “linguistic minorities overwhelmingly lose their mother tongues by the second or, at most, the third generation’'; and where “no ethnic political parties or separatist movements exist’’?

Mr. Fishman maintains that U.S. English and like-minded groups have “a hidden agenda’’ of equating cultural differences with disloyalty, of seeking scapegoats for social ills that have little to do with language, such as terrorism abroad and economic dislocations at home.

“The English-only movement,’' he argues, “is a displacement of middle-class fears and anxieties from difficult, perhaps even intractable, real problems in American society, to mythical, simplistic, and stereotypic problems.’'

It is, he concludes, “another ‘liberation of Grenada’ relative to the real causes of unrest in the world.’'

Ms. Bikales argues, however, that minorities’ unwillingness to learn English is a very real problem that fosters social disunity. “Government should not stand idly by and let the core culture, the shared culture formed by generations of earlier immigrants, slip away,’' she says. “The government should not allow its own citizens to feel like strangers in their own land. If anyone has to feel strange, it’s got to be the immigrant, until he learns the language.’'

With the availability of bilingual education and other native-language services, Ms. Bikales charges, language minorities no longer feel bound by the “unwritten pact that generations of immigrants have lived by: ‘In return for freedom and opportunity, one learns English.’''

Administration View

The Reagan Administration has declined to take a position on the proposed English-language amendment to the Constitution. Although a handful of conservative congressmen have been promoting the measure since 1981, it has received little support in the Congress.

Senator Steve Symms, the Republican from Idaho who is the amendment’s prime sponsor, recently said he does not expect the measure to be approved in the near future. He conceded, though, that his goal in pushing for the amendment is to outlaw bilingual education: “We owe it to those people who immigrate into the United States to immerse them in English, to help them become proficient in the language, so they, too, can participate in the great American dream.’'

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has maintained the Administration’s position of neutrality on the issue. But the Education Department recently hired Senator Symms’s principal aide on the issue, R.E. “Rusty’’ Butler, as a special assistant on postsecondary education. In a 1984 monograph, Mr. Butler warned that “bilingual education has national-security implications’’ and linked it to Hispanic “separatism’’ and the potential for “terrorism in the U.S.’'

Carol Pendas Whitten, director of the office of bilingual education and minority languages affairs, has met frequently with officials of U.S. English to discuss their views on how to educate limited-English-proficient children.

Last fall, she hired one of the group’s consultants, Gary R. Imhoff, to conduct a study “to ensure the objectivity and accuracy’’ of materials used in bilingual-bicultural teacher-training programs receiving federal funds.

‘English Plus’

To counter the growing influence of the “English-only’’ movement, in late 1985 the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Miami-based Spanish American League Against Discrimination launched a campaign known as “English Plus.’'

There is no question that English is the nation’s common language, says Osvaldo Soto, president of SALAD, and the groups favor every effort to help LEP children become proficient in it.

“But English is not enough,’' he says. “We don’t want a monolingual society. This country was founded on a diversity of language and culture, and we want to preserve that diversity.’'

The English Plus campaign has concentrated on urging states and municipalities to declare themselves officially multilingual and multicultural. Such measures have passed in Atlanta, Tucson, Ariz., and Osceola County, Fla., and are pending in Arizona and New York State.

But the English Plus groups played only a limited role in opposing California’s Proposition 63. Some Hispanic organizations, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, campaigned actively against the measure, but it was the American Civil Liberties Union that took the lead. In addition, many politicians opposed Proposition 63, calling it an insult to minorities.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1987 edition of Education Week as California Vote Gives Boost To ‘English-Only’ Movement