U.S. Educational Language Policy

Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have an official national language policy. Educational language policy in the country is largely the result of widely held beliefs and values about immigrants and patriotism. Language policies, implicit or explicit, are used to influence and control social behavior, and the U.S. is no different. Nothing prohibits states from having one or official languages, and a majority of U.S. states have designed English their official language policies. New Mexico and the Common Wealth of Puerto Rico have designated both English and Spanish as co-official languages. The state of Hawaii also has two official languages, English and Hawaiian (ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi).

Traditionally, the discourse on language policy in the U.S.has been framed as an either-or choice between English and other languages. In schools, the result was an imposition of English language and Anglo culture on minorities, which goes back to the deculturation of American Indians through the system of English-only boarding schools. During World War 1 and the early 1920s, imposition of English-only policies went along with persecution of German speakers

For a brief period during the sixties and seventies languages other than English were accommodated in schools. However, since the nineties, the English-only movement has reversed most of those gains, and currently 28 states have English-only policies.

Educational access through English not only ignores the linguistic resources in many immigrant or indigenous communities, but also negatively affects educational equity, achievement, and a sense of identity. Foreign language teaching has generally been restricted to languages useful for defense and intelligence purposes, with foreign language programs delinked from heritage language resources in communities.

In the last decade, we have seen a growth in community schools teaching heritage languages, and in formal dual-language programs. Hopefully this trend will continue and opportunities for developing multilingual competence from an early age will be expanded.

Resources, News, and Events

Educating America’s Emerging Multilingual Learners: Congressional Briefing
Language Policy, Politics, and Diversity in Education – Review of Research in Education Volume 38
Language Policy, Politics, and Diversity in Education – Review of Research in Education Volume 38

Edited by Kathryn M. Borman, University of South Florida, Terrence G. Wiley, Center for Applied Linguistics, David R. Garcia, Arizona State University, and Arnold B. Danzig, San José State University

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The Center for Applied Linguistics is a nonprofit organization promoting access, equity, and mutual understanding for linguistically and culturally diverse people around the world.