English-only movements seek to establish English as the official language of a nation, part of a nation, or a colony. As such (as with other dominant languages), English acts as a communicator of social identity and a vehicle of culture and economic power. Although proponents of English-only cite concerns about the erosion of English as a primary language, English is often seen as a language of wider communication, a world language, the language of globalization, and of the Internet. Underlying these descriptors is the notion of English as somehow “neutral” and non-threatening to multilingualism. Historically though, English either spread to or was imposed on minorities, indigenous populations and colonized peoples. This occurred first under English monarchies and the British Empire, exemplified by its imposition upon the Scots, Welsh, and Irish as well as its use almost exclusively in education systems of far-flung colonies like India and Africa. In the USA, Native Americans were systematically punished for non-English use and their children educated in boarding schools in order to diminish indigenous languages. Recently, English has come to be considered a “lingua franca” largely because of the number of English speakers (native and non-native) in the EU and because of USA corporate dominance globally. Thus, among those of “Anglo-Saxon” origin especially, English has served as a tool for maintaining the proverbial upper hand and consequently possesses high linguistic vitality.
That said, conservative Anglo-American interest groups in the USA (e.g., US English; English First) especially and USA Anglos in general have supported moves to legislate English as the official language. As an intergroup marker, language triggers social comparison, becoming a lightning rod whenever dominant groups feel beleaguered by growing minorities (Barker & Giles 2002). Englishonly policies, such as prohibition of other languages in government, education, and the workplace, represent strategies designed to maintain a group’s ascendancy over others (Barker et al. 2001), and are akin to other forms of limitation such as denial of government services, education, and citizenship. So far, 27 USA states have adopted English as their official language, a largely symbolic act. However, in May 2006, the USA Senate voted English as the “national” language, declaring that federal services should not be in any other language except for those already allowed by law. President George W. Bush stated that immigrants must learn English and that the national anthem should be sung only in English (a reaction to a Spanish-language version of the “Stars and Stripes”).
This underscored the widely held assumption that immigrants do not learn English, an assumption which is not supported by research (or by the USA census), since most immigrants are monolingual English speakers by the second or third generation. Regardless, perceptions about the disappearance of English have led to a backlash against bilingual education in the USA and a return to English-only immersion for immigrant children (particularly in California and Arizona, where Spanish speakers are numerous). This in turn has led to negative outcomes for English acquisition and academic achievement among immigrant students. So far USA English-only advocates are most active, although factors associated with support for English-only polices do exist in other core English-language nations.
In Britain, immigrants have brought different languages from former colonies and recently from the Middle East and the EU. While immigration is a source of public concern, language conflicts are less salient than issues such as “bogus” applications for political asylum. However, in 2002 the home secretary, David Blunkett, caused controversy by recommending that immigrant parents should not only learn English but also speak English to their children at home. Additionally, since November 1, 2005, naturalization candidates are required to show English, Welsh, or Gaelic proficiency by passing a test or by attending English-language and citizenship classes. In Australia and New Zealand, national governments have acknowledged the importance of linguistic diversity. Nonetheless, studies investigating perceptions of linguistic vitality among Australian Anglos report that high contact and lower education predict exaggerated perceived vitality of minority languages relative to English. English is the majority language in New Zealand, but Maori is the official language and is widely represented in signage and English-based publications. However, although immigrants to New Zealand complete language shift relatively rapidly, some Anglos are hostile to non-English languages.
Much popular and academic commentary debates English-only issues, but little communication research has investigated the impetus for such measures. In the USA, over 82 percent of residents speak only English and for most Anglos contact with non-English speakers is still limited. (In Iowa 94 percent of the people are non-Hispanic whites, and yet the state lately adopted English as its official language.) Future research should examine the potential influence of the news media as a source of information concerning language minorities and language shift in the USA and other core English-language nations. Similarly, the influence of non-English mass media on subjective perceptions of linguistic vitality is still largely unknown and should be assessed.
- Barker, V., & Giles, H. (2002). Who supports the English-only movement?: Evidence for misconceptions about Latino group vitality. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 23, 353 – 370.
- Barker, V., & Giles, H. (2004). Supporting English-only policies and socially limiting immigrants and minorities: A structural equation model. Language and Communication, 24, 77 – 95.
- Barker, V., Giles, H., Noels, K., Duck, J., Hecht, M., & Clément, R. (2001). The English-only movement: A communication analysis of changing perceptions of language vitality. Journal of Communication, 51, 3 – 37.
- Dueñas González, R., & Melis, I. (eds.) (2000). Language ideologies: Critical perspectives on the official English movement. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
- Fishman, J. A. (1988). English only: Its ghosts, myths and dangers. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 74, 125 –140.