American Identity and Attitudes toward English Language Policy Initiatives

Article excerpt

Relatively little is known about what individual-level factors drive Americans' attitudes toward offering services to immigrants. Using national-level data and logistic regressions, we examine what factors co-vary with whether respondents agree or disagree with specific policy initiatives regarding support for English language use for immigrants. We then examine what factors are related to whether respondents agree that tax money should be used to fund English classes for immigrant children and adults. We find that age, race, and general warmth toward undocumented immigrants predict English-only attitudes, and that marital status, education, and warmth toward undocumented immigrants predict attitudes toward the use of public funds to teach English.

Keywords: language policy, immigrants, attitudes, English classes


The foreign born population of the United States grew from 7.9 percent in 1990 to 11.1 percent, or 31.1 million residents by 2000 (Schmidley, 2001; U.S. Department of State, 2002). Since 2000 the United States has continued to welcome large numbers of immigrants admitting 1,063,732 in 2002 alone of which over 40 percent originated from Spanish-speaking countries (U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service 2001; U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2003).

Language is at the core of the policy debate over immigrants' impact on American culture (Lapinski, Peltola, Shaw, and Yang 1997). However, when we examine the research done on American attitudes toward English usage in public schools and the use of public tax money to teach immigrants English, the literature is modest. Some research has isolated correlates related to anti-immigrant attitudes (see Cowan, Martinez, and Mendiola, 1997 and Esses, Dovidio, Jackson, and Armstrong, 2001), but these conclusions have been based on small samples of college students and may not be representative of the general population. Research on sentiment toward making English the official language, as Propositions 187 and 227 in California intend, indicates the importance of language in shaping attitudes toward illegal immigrants (Cowan, et al. 1997). Americans who believe that English should be the only language in schools increased from 40 to 48 percent from 1993 to 1995 (Lapinski et al., 1997). This English-only sentiment is an important indicator of openness toward immigrants, especially if this trend continues. Preliminary analysis of our survey data shows this trend has become more pronounced with 66 percent of 395 respondents in 2001 reporting that English should be the only language used in public schools.

Using data from the University of Oklahoma's 2001 Survey of American Attitudes (SAA) national telephone survey we examine the individual-level factors that may predict more altruistic and open attitudes toward English language policy initiatives, such as whether English should be the only language used in public schools, and whether the same types of individuals who agree that tax money should be used to teach English to immigrant children also agree that tax money should be used to teach English to immigrant adults.

Throughout the twentieth century, the general trend in public opinion has been a growing negativity toward immigrants (Simon, 1985; Jarret, 1999), possibly caused by the perception that these newcomers threaten existing American cultural identity, beliefs, and values (Espenshade and Calhoun, 1993; Esses et al., 2001). Because English language use is a salient component of American identity, the symbolic politics model is useful in framing this analysis. The symbolic politics model posits that cultural symbols, such as language choice, may signify what it means to be an American and can influence opinions on other related issues such as bilingual education or immigration policy in general (Citrin, Reingold, Walters, and Green, 1990a; Citrin, Haas, Muste, and Reingold, 1994). …


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