LINGUIST List 6.1401

Thu Oct 12 1995

FYI: U.S. Congessional hearings on Official-English bills

Editor for this issue: Anthony M. Aristar <>


  1. Geoff Nunberg, House hearings on Official-English bills

Message 1: House hearings on Official-English bills

Date: Wed, 11 Oct 1995 00:48:12 House hearings on Official-English bills
From: Geoff Nunberg <>
Subject: House hearings on Official-English bills

(This posting was prepared jointly with James Crawford, a Washington
D.C.-based journalist who has been following the English-only issue for a
number of years. Crawford can be reached at

The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families of the House
Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee announced last week that
they would be holding hearings on October 18 and November 1 on several
"official English" bills. The major bills under consideration are as

 ***The Emerson bill (H. R. 123) has 180+ sponsors. It makes English the
 official language of government and says that the government shall have "an
 affirmative obligation" to "preserve and enhance" this role. Exceptions are
 made only for the teaching of foreign languages, for actions necessary for
 public health and international relations and foreign trade, for actions to
 protect the rights of criminal defendents, and for the use of "terms of
 art" from languages other than English. This bill is identical to Senate
 bill S. 356 (the Shelby bill, which has 19 sponsors), now pending in the
 Governmental Affairs Committee. Hearings on the Shelby bill have not been

 ***The Roth bill (H. R. 739) has 80+ sponsors. It is roughly similar to the
 Emerson bill in pronouncing English the language of government, but
 contains fewer exceptions. It also explicitly repeals Title VII of the
 Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provides for
 bilingual education, and the sections of the 1965 Voting Rights act that
 provide for bilingual ballots in jurisdictions with substantial
 non-English-speaking populations. It gives broad standing to sue for
 enforcement of the act and provides that a party that prevails in such a
 case shall be entitled to recover attorney's fees -- a provision that would
 permit groups like US English to function as subsidized enforcers of the

 ***The King bill (H.R. 1005) has around 35 sponsors. It is still more
 restrictive in its exceptions -- it makes allowances only for religious
 purposes and training in foreign languages and makes no exceptions for
 international relations and foreign trade, for interpreters for criminal
 defendants, or for public health programs. It is even more sweeping than
 the Roth bill in its termination of bilingual education programs and
 bilingual ballots. It also instructs the Department of Education to
 "recapture unexpended funds" awarded to schools under the Bilingual
 Education Act and to use them for English-only instructional programs.

None of the bills makes funds directly available for the teaching of
English, though the Emerson bill directs that " any monetary savings
derived from the enactment of this Act should be used for the teaching of
non-English speaking immigrants the English language," which is more a wish
than an appropriation. This despite the fact that there are long waiting
lists for ESL courses in most cities -- around 50,000 people in Los Angeles
alone, for example.

Readers who want to see the full texts of these bills can find them at any
of the GPO Access sites, for example at UNCLIB.LIB.UNC.EDU. Log in as

PROSPECTS FOR PASSAGE: It is extremely likely that at least one of these
bills will be passed out of committee -- probably the Emerson bill, though
a number of official-English advocates have complained that this measure is
too wishy-washy, and given the recent House propensity for passing strong
measures, either the Roth bill or the King bill might be passed on as well.
It is also likely that one of these bills will be passed by the house,
since most of the current leadership (including Gingrich, Armey, and
DeLay) have cosponsored such bills in the past. Senate passage is less
certain, since similar measures have been opposed in the past by some
western Republicans (e.g., Hatch, McCain, and Domenici) but here too the
odds favor the official-English side. Official English has been endorsed by
most of the current Republican presidential candidates, including most
recently Sen. Dole. President Clinton has announced his opposition to the
measures (he admits to having made a mistake as Governor of Arkansas in
signing an English-only bill some years ago), but it is not known whether
he would veto them if passed.

EFFECTS OF THE BILLS: The effects of the measures depend of course on which
of them is passed and on how they are interpreted by the courts. Both the
Roth and King bills would effectively end bilingual education programs in
this country and eliminate the use of bilingual ballots. The Emerson-Shelby
bill says nothing about terminating bilingual education as such, but courts
might interpret it to this effect, since it can be argued that the explicit
exception for the "teaching of foreign languages" implies a choice not to
exempt other kinds of programs aimed at reviving indigenous languages, say,
or at using foreign languages in the course of teaching English. (Notably,
this version of the Emerson-Shelby bill is missing language that was
present in the versions presented in the last two Congresses, which made
exception for "purely informational and educational" actions and

In addition, all of the bills would probably have the effect of terminating
or severely restricting the provision of public information in languages
other than English -- whether in the form of a Department of Agriculture
bulletin on pesticide use, a Department of Education pamphlet on special
education programs, an INS publication on citizenship programs, or an ICC
advisory on the interstate shipment of meat. They would prohibit a
government insurance adjuster from using Spanish to talk to citizens about
claims, and could be used to deny a legislator funds to hire a Spanish- or
Chinese-speaking staff person to deal with constitutents (these latter two
situations figured in the recent appeal of a similar measure in Arizona,
originally granted but now under reconsideration by the Ninth Circuit
Court). Strictly interpreted, some of the bills would even prohibit the
Department of Commerce from publishing pamphlets in German or Japanese to
encourage foreign investment. Some of these effects may sound extreme, but
as one observer noted in connection with the Contract with America program,
it would be a big mistake to assume that common sense will somehow prevail.

One other point of particular concern to linguists: if enacted, these
measures would probably supersede older laws already on the books,
potentially including the Native American Languages Act. Native Americans
have not been a principal target of the U. S. English group (though this
act has been attacked by some other members of the English-only lobby like
the smaller English First group). The consequences for Native Americans are
hard to assess. At one point the U. S. English group suggested that some
language protection could still be provided for those who live on
reservations, but not for those who do not, but it is not clear if this is
still their view. (By the way, virtually nothing has been said in these
debates about the status of ASL -- few legislators and official-English
advocates are even aware that ASL is a different language from English --
but it is at least conceivable that the bills could be invoked in this
context as well.)

The bills would also have important symbolic effects, particularly in the
current anti-immigrant climate. They would send that message that current
immigrants are unwilling to participate in the larger community and have to
be coerced to learn English, despite the overwhelming evidence to the
contrary. (This is indeed an explicit goal of the authors; for example in
introducing his bill Rep. Pete King (R-NY) cited the need to counter the
effects of "social engineers in Washington [who] have actually been
encouraging people not to learn English" and have caused us to spend
billions of dollars on bilingual education.) And in the course of things,
the bills would surely encourage resentment and hostility towards speakers
of foreign languages -- the sort of thing that has led to a spate of
"English-only" workplace rules, or to the recent order by a Texas judge in
a custody case requiring a Mexican-American mother to use English in
talking to her daughter.

RESPONDING TO THE BILLS: The LSA has made known its opposition to official
language measures in its overwhelming adoption of a resolution passed in
1988, an opposition confirmed by subsequent resolutions and by numerous
actions of the Executive Committee. In response to the announcement of
hearings, the LSA Secretariat, in consultation with the Committee on Social
and Political Concerns, has been working with other groups (such as the
Joint National Committee on Languages) to arrange to provide testimony on
the various bills in committee. It is not clear at this point whether the
House Committee will allow public testimony from any opponents of the bills
apart from other members of Congress, but it is likely that they will
accept written testimony, and to this end the Committee on Social and
Political Concerns has been completing the statement on language rights
authorized by the membership at the last annual meeting. This statement is
being drafted by Peter Tiersma of the Loyola Law School (LA) in
consultation with the SPC Committee and others, and once it has been
approved by the Executive Committee it will be offered by the LSA to the
House Committee. A copy of the final statement will be posted to the
Linguist List.

For practical reasons, the LINGUIST list has made it a policy not to run
explicit appeals for political action. Linguists who want more information
will find the full text of this message, together with the names and
addresses of members of the relevant House and Senate committees, at

- ------------------------------------
Geoffrey Nunberg
Xerox PARC
3333 Coyote Hill Road
Palo Alto, CA 94304
ph: 415-812-4711
fax: 415-812-4777
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