The English Only Question: An official language for Americans? Monolingualizing America: A History

Michael Harvey

The “typical American” is a monolingual English speaker; and for many generations it has been the general belief that, by coming to the United States, immigrants should discard their previous cultural identity along with their native language in order to assimilate to the general culture and English speaking population. This belief has lead to the exact opposite occurring in that “American democracy has produced linguistic anarchy” due to the country’s commitment to individual liberties (Baron, 1990).

Throughout the text, Baron explains how various countries, states, and cities have attempted to foster official languages, and time after time, been unable to do so without producing any results, or inciting even further divisions in groups. As an educator it is interesting that according to Baron: “the illiteracy rate of the children of foreigners was 0.9 percent , significantly lower than the 4.4 percent rate of native born children” (1990). The above statistic from 1921 was amid a time of massive immigration to the United States and shows that the group struggling with English wasn’t necessarily the children of immigrants but those of native-born speakers. This concept is still discussed today in addressing struggling students, who often assumed to be non-native English speakers.

Baron also discusses the language climate in regards to Illinois’s flexibility regarding the concept of English-Only stating:“language law is also typical in that it has proved flexible enough to accommodate shifting attitudes or public policies toward language and education” (1990). This book goes into the history of failures in education in regards to English Language Learners (ELLs) and the numerous attempts made across the country by “Americans” to assimilate immigrants through language. One of the biggest influences on the language of the classroom came from fear, specifically World War I, which “accentuated the perception that Americanization via English was essential” (1990). A definite stain on American educational history in regards to English language learning was the practice of schools “to suppress the students’ native tongue, punishing them for using the wrong language”- essentially shaming a student’s language from them (1990). Modern education focuses on transitioning students into English language classrooms through building skills and fluency instead of degrading cultures to cause assimilation. Contemporary “schools finally struggle with the formal teaching of English to non-English speakers, they are bitterly attacked for failing no matter what method they try or how genuine their intention to succeed” (1990).

Teachers today are finally addressing the diversity of student languages while fighting an uphill battle of public opinion for not Americanizing students enough. Baron speaks of America’s future languages, stating that “it is not English but minority languages in the United States which face extinction” (1990). Overall, this is an interesting examination into the history of America’s language and how much U.S. culture is tied into English.

Works Cited
Baron, Dennis E. The English-only Question: An Official Language for Americans? New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. Print.

Michael Harvey is a graduate student at Saint Xavier University in the Elementary Education Program.
ITBE Link - July 2016