The English Language Amendment
S. Kathleen Kitao Kenji Kitao
Michigan State University Doshisha University
In 1985, The English Language Amendment to the Constitution
of the United States was proposed. This amendment will soon be
considered by United States Congress.
The text of the amendment reads, in part:
Section 1: The English language shall be the official language
of the United States.
Section 2: Neither the United States nor any State shall require
by law, ordinance, regulation, order, decree, program or policy, the use
in the United States of any language other than English.
According to Congressman Norman Shumway, who introduced
this amendment in the House of Representatives, the amendment is
important for maintaining the unity of the people of the United States.
While the English language is used by custom, it has never been made
the official language of the country. Since immigrants to the United
States come from many different countries, it is important for
Americans to have something that unifies them, and that has always
been the English language.
Some Americans, citing problems between language groups in
other countries, feel that recent use of other languages by and for
immigrants is a divisive factor in the United States. They want to
affirm English as the official language of the United States and prevent
federal or state governments from requiring use of any other language.
They cite requirements that voting materials and drivers' manuals be
published in languages other than English (the California drivers'
manual is printed in six languages). They also point out that in some
parts of the country, particularly in Florida, Texas or Southern
California, where there are many non-English-speaking immigrants, it is
difficult for a person who does not speak a language other than English
(usually Spanish) to get a job. The proponents of the amendment also
object to bilingual education, which, they say, perpetuates the use of
languages other than English.
Historically, immigrants to the United States have been expected
to learn English, the language of the United States. Those who did not
learn English were at a severe disadvantage in the job market and
generally ended up doing menial jobs. Immigrants often continued to
use their native languages in their homes and in their ethnic
neighborhoods, such as in the Italian section of New York or the
Chinese section of San Francisco. In such communities, neighbors
spoke the language of their native country among themselves, and signs
appeared in that language. Immigrants had newspapers in their native
language. Even today, newspapers are published in hundreds of
languages in the United States. However, Americans expect people
who come to the United States to be able to speak English in order to
deal with people outside of their ethnic group. Classes in English as a
second language are offered by school systems and other organizations.
Children of immigrants were generally educated in English-medium
schools, even if they did not speak English initially.
In the late 1960's and early 1970's, this began to change. More
and more provision was being made to attempt to ease the language
problems of immigrants and of their children. This took a number of
forms. In some cities, signs in the languages of the immigrant groups
appeared. Cities and states began providing information and services
in the native languages of the immigrant groups within their borders,
such as allowing immigrants to apply for jobs or take driving tests in
their native languages.
One of the most controversial and widespread examples has been
bilingual education. It was noted that, due of their low language
proficiency, children of immigrants had difficulties in school. They
could not understand the content of their classes, which were taught in
English. By the time their English became fluent, they were behind in
the content areas of their classes. To prevent these students from
falling behind while they were learning English, schools where there
were a large number of children of immigrants from a particular country
began offering at least some of the classes in the immigrants native
Opponents of bilingual education counter that children will learn
English better if they are forced to use it. When classes are offered in
their native language these children do not need to use English, so they
continue to depend almost entirely on their native language. Classes in
the native language only postpone the inevitable time when children
have to learn English to function in the larger culture and to get jobs.
In fact, the opponents point out, in certain parts of the country, high
school students can graduate without having learned English.
The issue involved in this amendment has become a very
important and emotional one in many parts of the Unites States.
Proponents of the amendment argue that, for the purpose of national
unity, it is vital to affirm English as the official language of the United
States. No special provisions were made for immigrants who came to
the US in the past, and many of these immigrants were very successful.
They managed to learn English and start businesses, get good
educations or send their children to college. The immigrants coming
to the US now should not expect any more. Proponents of the measure
also say that in some parts of the country (most notably Florida, Texas
and the Southwest), there are so many immigrants and English is used
so little that some English-speaking Americans feel like foreigners in
their own country. English speaking Americans sometimes have
difficulty getting jobs, even doing manual labor, if they do not speak the
predominant language of the immigrants in the area.
Opponents of the amendment counter that the amendment will
have a divisive, not unifying, effect. It will make non-native English
speakers feel like second-class citizens and make it difficult for those
who don't speak English to get government services or education, if
they are not able to get help in English. Opponents also maintain that,
for many of those who support the bill, the motivating force is prejudice
against foreigners who do not speak English and an attempt to keep
them on the outside of mainstream American society.
The English language amendment will probably continue to be an
important issue in the United States for many years to come. The
decisions made in relation to this amendment will have a great influence
on the lives of both Americans and immigrants.
In addition to allowing students to keep up with the
content of their classes, this was believed to help the
non-native speakers' self-image. Some advocates of bilingual
education believe that when children's native language is
spoken in the home and within the small circle of the ethnic
group, but not at all in the larger society, children feel that
their native language, and by extension their native culture
and they themselves, were denegrated in the larger culture.
Advocates of bilingual education believed that it allows
children to see that their native language was valued by the
larger society, and this improved their self image. Opponents
also argue that it is not the job of the government to foster the
self-image or maintain the culture of children of immigrants.
Copyright (1987) by S. Kathleen Kitao and Kenji Kitao