Language Politics and Policy in the United States: Implications for the Immigration Debate (Working Paper #141)

April Linton, University of California – San Diego

Introduction: Language policies – established via legislation, court decisions, executive action, or other means – may 1) determine how languages are used in public, 2) abet the cultivation of language skills needed to meet national priorities, or 3) affirm and protect the rights of individuals or groups to learn, use, and maintain languages. They may also deal with a government’s own language use, e.g., by facilitating clear communication, guaranteeing due process, fostering political participation, and/or providing access to public services. The United States has never had a federal language policy. There is no federal agency charged with coordinating decisions about language use or resources. Yet it is impossible for the U.S. or any government to be neutral towards language because governments necessarily make choices about which language or languages to communicate in. These choices influence the value of the linguistic capital of various groups in the population, especially immigrants whose native language is not a primary language of the host country. The same is true of the institutional contexts for work and school. In the U.S., the dominance of English in government, industry, education, and popular culture has made it the most important element in the construction of national identity, both as a communicative instrument shared by members of the nation and as a boundary marker affirming their distinction from others (Zolberg and Long 1999).

This essay examines recent attempts to legislate language in light of historical and contemporary debates about immigration and immigrant assimilation. I briefly chronicle U.S. language politics, culminating with the emergence of Official English and English Plus movements in the 1980s and 90s. Next I look at language policy in public schools, especially ‘bilingual’ education and the backlash against it, and a much less politically charged ‘dual-language’ option. Finally I appraise national language and official English bills recently introduced in Congress in view of data on language usage and preferences, suggesting ways that this resurgence of a national debate about language could impact the larger debate about immigration.

Working Paper #141 »