English-only Movement

A sign denoting an English-only zone

Veejay Villafranca / Getty Images

The English-only movement is a political movement that seeks to establish English as the sole official language of the United States or of any particular city or state within the U.S. The expression "English-only" is primarily used by opponents of the movement. Advocates prefer other terms, such as "Official-English Movement." U.S.ENGLISH, Inc. states that it is "the nation's oldest, largest citizens' action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States. Founded in 1983 by the late Senator S.I. Hayakawa, an immigrant himself, U.S. English now has 1.8 million members nationwide."​


President Theodore Roosevelt

"We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house." –Works, 1926

Peter Elbow

"It's touching when speakers of English argue for purity in the language since English is probably the most impure bastardized language there's ever been. It's slept with every language it ever encountered, even casually. The strength of English comes from how many babies it's had with how many partners." –Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, 2012

Geoffrey Nunberg

"Given the minor role that language has played in our historical self-conception, it isn't surprising that the current English-only movement began in the political margins, the brainchild of slightly flaky figures like Senator S.I. Hayakawa and John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist who co-founded the U.S. English organization as an outgrowth of his involvement in zero population growth and immigration restriction. (The term 'English-only' was originally introduced by supporters of a 1984 California initiative opposing bilingual ballots, a stalking horse for other official-language measures. Leaders of the movement have since rejected the label, pointing out that they have no objection to the use of foreign languages in the home. But the phrase is a fair characterization of the goals of the movement so far as public life is concerned.)...

"Considered strictly in the light of the actualities, then, English-only is an irrelevant provocation. It is a bad cure for an imaginary disease, and moreover, one that encourages an unseemly hypochondria about the health of the dominant language and culture. But it is probably a mistake to try to engage the issue primarily at this level, as opponents of these measures have tried to do with little success. Despite the insistence of English-only advocates that they have launched their campaign 'for the immigrants' own good,' it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the needs of non-English speakers are a pretext, not a rationale, for the movement. At every stage, the success of the movement has depended on its capacity to provoke widespread indignation over allegations that government bilingual programs are promoting a dangerous drift toward a multilingual society." –"Speaking of America: Why English-Only Is a Bad Idea." The Workings of Language: From Prescriptions to Perspectives, ed. by Rebecca S. Wheeler. Greenwood, 1999

Paul Allatson

"Many commentators regard English-Only as a symptom of a nativist backlash against immigration from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, the ostensible focus on 'language' by proponents often masking deeper fears about the 'nation' under threat from Spanish-speaking peoples (Crawford 1992). At a federal level, English is not the official language of the USA, and any attempt to give English that function would require a Constitutional amendment. However, this is not the case at city, county, and state level across the country, and much of the recent legislative success to enshrine English as the official state, county, or city language is attributable to English-Only." –Key Terms in Latino/a Cultural And Literary Studies, 2007

James Crawford

"[F]actual support has generally proved unnecessary for English-only proponents to advance their cause. The facts are that, except in isolated locales, immigrants to the United States have typically lost their native languages by the third generation. Historically they have shown an almost gravitational attraction toward English, and there are no signs that this proclivity has changed. To the contrary, recent demographic data analyzed by Veltman (1983, 1988) indicate that rates of anglicization—shift to English as the usual language—are steadily increasing. They now approach or surpass a two-generation pattern among all immigrant groups, including Spanish-speakers, who are most often stigmatized as resistant to English." –At War with Diversity: US Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety, 2000

Kevin Drum

"I may not have any big objections to making English our official language, but why bother? Far from being unique, Hispanics are just like every other wave of immigrants in American history: they start off speaking Spanish, but the second and third generations end up speaking English. And they do it for obvious reasons: they live among English speakers, they watch English-language television, and it's hellishly inconvenient not to speak it. All we have to do is sit back and do nothing, and Hispanic immigrants will eventually all become English speakers." –"The Best Way to Promote the English Language Is to Do Nothing," 2016


Anita K. Barry

"In 1988, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) of the NCTE passed a National Language Policy (Smitherman, 116) that lists as the goals of CCCC:

1. to provide resources to enable native and non-native speakers to achieve oral and literate competence in English, the language of wider communication;
2. to support programs that assert the legitimacy of native languages and dialects and ensure that proficiency in one's mother tongue will not be lost; and
3. to foster the teaching of languages other than English so that native speakers of English can rediscover the language of their heritage or learn a second language.

Some opponents of English-only, including the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Education Association, united in 1987 into a coalition called 'English Plus,' which supports the concept of bilingualism for everyone..." –Linguistic Perspectives on Language and Education, 2002

Henry Fountain

"Fewer than half of the nations in the world have an official language--and sometimes they have more than one. 'The interesting thing, though,' said James Crawford, a writer on language policy, 'is that a large percentage of them are enacted to protect the rights of language minority groups, not to establish a dominant language.'

"In Canada, for example, French is an official language along with English. Such a policy is intended to protect the francophone population, which has remained distinct for hundreds of years.

"'In the United States we don't have that kind of stable bilingualism,' Mr. Crawford said. 'We have a pattern of very rapid assimilation.'

"A more apt comparison might be to Australia, which like the United States has had high levels of immigration.

"'Australia doesn't have an English-only movement,' Mr. Crawford said. While English is the official language, Australia also has a policy that encourages immigrants to preserve their language and English-speakers to learn new ones, all to benefit trade and security.

"'They don't use language as a lightning rod for expressing your views on immigration,' Mr. Crawford said. 'Language has not become a major symbolic dividing line.'" –"In Language Bill, the Language Counts," 2006

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Nordquist, Richard. "English-only Movement." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/english-only-movement-language-1690601. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). English-only Movement. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/english-only-movement-language-1690601 Nordquist, Richard. "English-only Movement." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/english-only-movement-language-1690601 (accessed June 1, 2023).