Only English? How Bilingual Education Can Mitigate the Damage of English-Only

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INTRODUCTION

"Pizza, por favor." These three simple words recently caused an uproar when Dallas-based pizza chain, Pizza Patron, launched a new promotion: free pepperoni pizza if you order in Spanish. According to a company press release, the June 5, 2012 promotion was the first in a series of immigrant-targeted events that Pizza Patron will launch this year "to celebrate the brand's Hispanic focus and honor the positive force of change immigrants have made in communities throughout America." (1) Critics like Peter Thomas, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, which advocates English as the official language of the United States, denounced the promotion as "punish[ing] people who can't speak Spanish." (2) Others even deemed the promotion racist. (3) Nonetheless, the marketing ploy may very well be the first promotion to reward customers who exhibit linguistic diversity--whether it comes in the form of broken Spanish, first-time Spanish, or fluent Spanish.

Unlike Pizza Patron's promotion, English-Only rules in the workplace and the vast majority of English acquisition programs in American public schools treat language diversity as a problem or a social liability. (4) This perspective is not surprising given that people are uncomfortable with language conflict, and linguistic outsiders naturally have feelings of disorientation, powerlessness and vulnerability. (5) The modern English-Only movement, (6) spearheaded by political action groups like U.S. English, capitalizes on this anxiety and lobbies for legislation that restricts the use of languages other than English by the government and, in some cases, the private sector as well. (7) As a result of these campaigns, many states have passed English-Only laws, primarily targeting Latino and Asian immigrants. Some laws make English the "official" state language, and others limit or bar the government from providing non-English language assistance and services. (8) As of August 2012, thirty states had identified English as their only official language. (9) On August 2, 2012 the House Judiciary's Subcommittee on the Constitution heard testimony regarding the latest incarnation of a federal English-Only bill: the "English Language Unity Act of 2011" (H.R. 977), sponsored by Representative Steven King of Iowa. (10)

The school and the workplace have become the primary battlegrounds of the English-Only debate. In recent years, the English-Only movement has spawned numerous so-called "Unz Initiatives," (11) state legislation aimed at abolishing bilingual education by replacing it with English acquisition classes, imposing a time limit on English acquisition, and removing bicultural education from public schools. (12) In the workplace, employers justify English-Only rules with arguments that mirror the claims made by the Official English Movement at large. Both argue that a common language is required for efficiency in a multilingual society and claim that an official language will promote social harmony. (13) Studies have revealed that "linguistically complex workplaces create pressure [on employers] to 'suppress linguistic differences,'" by implementing English-Only rules, "because language, an obvious marker of changes brought on by immigration, 'crystallizes resentment and anxiety.'" (14)

While proponents of the English-Only movement have adopted a language-as-problem approach, opponents of the movement tend to view language as a right. Critics assert that the constitutionality of Official English laws is questionable, and courts have struck down particularly draconian English-Only statutes at the state level in both Alaska (15) and Arizona. (16) Courts grounded the respective rulings in constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and equal protection, and the finding that the State had no compelling interest to justify an infringement of these rights. (17) The Arizona court declared: "[t]he Amendment's goal to promote English as a common language does not require a general prohibition on non-English usage. …