National Unification, Bilingulism and Official English

Language and Authority – part 1 and part 2

Proponents of Official English claim that they seek merely to recognize a state of affairs that has existed since the founding of the nation. After two hundred years of common-law cohabitation with English, we have simply decided to make an honest woman of her, for the sake of the children.  — Geofrey Nunberg, The Official English Movement: Reimagining America


Here, we will approach the cultural movement in the United States of making English the “official” language of the land, which is closely tied to the “English-Only” movement (though not necessarily the same).  I will not address the popular quips, like, “why do I have to press 1 for English?” or “There should be English translations on all businesses”.  These ideas are superficial to the real philosophical and logical arguments behind the movement.  That is not to say that debating the superficial is meaningless.  It means that trying to address all those arguments is overwhelmingly time-consuming.  A more focused conversation addresses the underlying foundational beliefs.  I will, therefore, restrict my comments to addressing the two key figures in the Official English movement, Senator S. I. Hayakawa and Representative Norman Shumway.  You can read their positions here.

The argument for a constitutional amendment naming English as the official language of the United States, as argued by Senator Hayakawa and Rep. Shumway, rests on basically two founding ideas.  The first is national unification by common language and the second is the failure of bilingualism. This essay will first consider these foundational ideas and then prove them false based on current scientific research.

English as National Unifier

To begin, both men start in the same fashion by assigning English the title of unifier in the United States of America.  Senator Hayakawa describes American society as a “hodgepodge of nationalities, races, and colors represented in the immigrant hordes that people our nation” (Hawakawa 94); holding this society together is the common language.

Representative Shumway says, “common language has been the ‘glue’ which has held us together, forging strength and unity from our rich cultural diversity” (Shumway 121).  This unifying characteristic of language is a powerful idea and one which people in a society like the United States can secure themselves to, especially when it can be difficult to say what it really means to be an American.  With so much diversity, or at least perceived diversity, it can appear that the common bond which holds us all together, is that we all speak English.

However, this presupposition is not as sure a foundation as Hayakawa and Shumway have proposed.  Throughout the history of the United States, the attraction and unifer of this country has not ever been English.  The first European settlers; the Puritans, the French, the Spanish, the southern and eastern europeans after the revolution, the Asians in the 1900s and the modern latin immigrant, all share the common trait that they believe in the opportunity and liberty that America represents.  Perhaps the claim underlying these ideals is that a common language allows the immigrant the ability to acquire opportunity, liberty, freedom and happiness; but there is no historical precedent for this in the United States.

It is impossible to tell from these two texts what Hayakawa and Shumway know about the linguistic past of the country, but their presuppositions about language being the glue of our society betrays ignorance.  One can hardly make the case that before our current time, all immigrants came to the United States with a passion to learn English when settlements of immigrants often preserved their native language, such as the Germans in the north, the French in the south and the Mexicans in the west.  Nor can the claim be made that because an ethnic group either came to America already speaking English, or made the commitment to learn English, that they were respected, given equal opportunity, or even protected under our constitution.  One only needs to look to the Irish Catholic and the African-American.  Indeed, far too often in our past and present are minorities persecuted, whether they speak English or not.


With the historical context in mind, Hayakawa’s closing statement “[o]ne official language and one only, so that we can unite as a nation” (100) rings awfully hallow.

David Crystal in his book Language Death adds;

There are two intractable difficulties with [monolingualism as a unification tool].  The first is the naivety of the conception that sharing a single language is a guarantor of mutual understanding and peace, a world of new alliances and global solidarity.  The examples to the contrary are so numerous that it would be impracticable to list them.  Suffice it to say that all the major monolingual countries of the world have had their civil wars, and that as one reflects on the war-zones of the world in the last decades of the twentieth century, it is striking just how many of them are in countries which are predominately monolingual (Crystal 27).

If unification is what the United States is striving for, entrenching in monolingualism is by no measure the logical direction.

The Failure of Bilingual Education

Building off of unification by language, Hayakawa and Shumway move to the next major point, the failure of multiculturalism and multilingualism.  Both men point out some very real issues facing cultural minorities in the United States.  Hayakawa quotes Earl Byrd, noting that,

“Hispanics are the least educated minority in America” (Hayakawa 98). 

Shumway states:

“existing government policies are discriminatory, by keeping language minorities forever on the fringes of our society” (Shumway 123).  

It is foolish to believe these are not actual problems facing America today.  However, both writers over-extend these facts and blame multilingualism as the cause, most specifically, citing bilingual education.

As regards bilingual education, Hayakawa states, “[d]espite the ministrations of the Department of Education [in bilingual education], or perhaps because of them, Hispanic students to a shocking degree drop out of school, educated neither in Hispanic nor American language and culture” (Hayakawa 98; bold added).  This is a strong argument and one that must be taken seriously.  It is unfortunate that the Senator does not make his position more explicit or explain the causal relationship of bilingual education and the drop-out rate of Hispanic students that his advocating.

As it is, a simple look into the history of the education of minority groups reveals that bilingual education was proposed as a solution to the already high drop-out rate of hispanics.  Sandra del Valle, in her book Language Rights and the Law in the United States, writes,

“Interest in bilingual education was not serendipitous; the educational plight of many Latino schoolchildren was increasingly visible during the early and mid 1960s.  The drop-out rate for Latinos, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans was often the highest amongst all ethnic groups.”  She continues, “both Puerto Ricans and Chicanos had seen their native languages ridiculed and suppressed either through the outright punishment of children for speaking Spanish or by legislation changing the national language of Puerto Rico to English.  The educational fall-out of these policies were not surprising: Latino students left school in droves, alienated, uneducated and isolated in their own countries” (Valle 225; italics added).

If there is a casual relationship between language policy and the academic drop-out rate of Hispanic schoolchildren, clearly it is that Official English is a detriment to successful education of linguistic minorities.


Hayakawa and Shumway’s argument may stand still, if a causal relationship can be linked to minority group drop-out rates, and the current practice of Bilingual education.  However, this is a near impossible task.  Mostly because, while we give it one name, bilingual education is really a cover title for many different approaches to the education of linguistic minorities and majorities.  Not all of which share the same goals, practices or educational theories.

The history of bilingual education is not altogether a success story.  Indeed, much of the learning process over the years has been in the implementation of theories and practices that do not work.  In 1968, Congress passed sweeping legislation for bilingual education, opening up resources to this very new way of teaching.  The theory at the time driving this new legislation was that cultural minorities were “deprived”.  This was based upon research into the developmental process of infants, which considered intellectual and visual stimulation critical.  Children not given the appropriate stimulation were considered deprived.  On this, del Valle notes:

“The idea of social or cognitive deprivation found a footing in the politics of culture … the concept of ‘cultural deprivation’ grew with its implicit condemnation of the ‘culture’ of Latinos and blacks.  For, it was the divergent and, therefore, deprived culture of these children that was leading them to educational failure” (Valle 227).

With this in mind, Shumway’s comments that, originally, the bilingual educational theory, “was a good one” (123: emphasis added) is disconcerting.  It was a start, but a crude one from which we have learned much.  To suppose it is something we should try to reclaim is to take a step backwards.

It is insufficient to describe all the various methodologies under the single title, “bilingual education”.  So many different approaches are developed, that to lump them all together is descriptively unsatisfactory.  Shumway believes that the transitional method, in which the goal is to transition the child to education in the majority language as soon as he/she exhibits  somewhat proficiency, is the ideal way (123). However current research, in the United States, has shown that late-exit immersion programs are the most successful.  J. David Ramirez who conducted the research in 1991 in behalf of the Department of Education found that,

“students who were provided with a substantial and consistent primary language development program learned mathematics, English language reading skills as fast or faster than the norming population” (del Valle 223).

This, in comparison to Shumway’s remarks that, “[i]n many cases, however, bilingual education may be counterproductive by fostering continued reliance on the student’s native language” (Shumway 123).  Giving the Representative the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he is speaking about other bilingual programs, and not the late-exit immersion programs.  But of all the programs, excluding language maintenance programs, late-exit immersion keeps the native language as the primary language of education the longest, which seems to be what Shumway is claiming to be the main detriment.  Clearly current research shows that this is not the case.

The research findings of Ramirez also have implications for the drop-out claim that Hayakawa has presented.  If, as representatives of their constituents, these politicians are looking out for the well-being of their minority groups, let them give heed to the conclusions of Ramirez; “their [late-exit immersion students] growth in these academic skills; atypical of discouraged youth … provides support for the efficiency of providing language development in facilitating the acquisition of English language skills” (qtd in del Valle 223).  If the drop-out rate of any group is to decrease, a good place to start is to eradicate the feelings of alienation and discouragement that exist; late-exit immersion programs have a primary role in that.

Many other things have been said by Hayakawa and Shumway, but their argument, in these specific essays, lives or dies on the implication that unification of the nation is brought by linguistic means and that bilingualism is a failure, using the educational domain as the primary example.  If these claims have any validity, they do not rest on the arguments Hayakawa and Shumway themselves espouse.


Crawford, James, ed. 1992.  Language loyalties: a source book on the official English controversy.  Chicago; University of Chicago.

Crystal, David.  2000.  Language Death.  United Kingdom: Cambridge.

Hayakawa, S. I.  1992.  “The Case for Official English.”  Crawford 94-100.

Nunberg, Geoffrey.  1992.  “The Official English Movement: Reimagining America”.  Crawford.

Shumway, Norman.  1992.  “Preserve the Primacy of English.” Crawford 121-4.

Valle, Sandra Del.  2003.  Language Rights and the Law in the United States.  New York:     Multilingual Matters.  Print.

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