Language issues

Language issues affect all aspects of an immigrant’s life in the United States. The ability to speak English correlates highly with the ability to function well. Access to information, health care, and cultural assimilation are often dependent on an immigrant’s ability to speak English.

Since its very beginning, the United States has been a country of many languages. Native Americans;languagesNative Americans spoke at least fifty-five distinct languages, and as immigrants arrived they continued to speak the languages of their home countries. Even though the English language became paramount, there long was a general tolerance of other languages. After the Mexican WarMexican War, when Mexico ceded large tracts of land to the United States in February of 1848, Mexico and the United States signed the Treaty of Hidalgo, which gave American citizenship to all Mexican nationals who remained in the ceded lands. The treaty also guaranteed certain civil, political, and religious rights to these new Spanish-speaking American citizens. Along with those protections, it was assumed that the former Mexican nationals would keep their language. There were suggestions to restrict this freedom in the early years of the country, but laws of this kind were considered a threat to civil liberties.Language issuesLanguage issues[cat]EDUCATION;Language
[cat]DEMOGRAPHICS;Language issues[03140][cat]CULTURE;Language issues[03140][cat]LITERATURE;Language issues[03140][cat]JOURNALISM;Language issues[03140]

In later years, however, various events began to change this tolerant attitude. For example, California gold rushCalifornia’s gold rush attracted to the West Coast easterners who ignored the language guarantees of the Mexican-American treaty. In the East, Anti-Catholic movements[AntiCatholic movements]anti-Roman Catholic attitudes and fear of foreign radicals supported a feeling of “national superiority.” It was God’s design, many thought, that Americans were a chosen people and that foreigners had no place in the United States. A famous late nineteenth century editorial cartoon by Nast, ThomasThomas Nast, depicted Roman Catholic bishops as crocodiles swimming ashore with the intention of destroying the public school system.

The onset of World War I[World War 01];and language issues[language issues]World War I brought language issues further to the fore. A great number of American citizens had come from German immigrants;language ofGermany. Many had kept their native language, and German was used in their schools. However, with the onset of the war, those who spoke German were regarded with suspicion as unpatriotic and somehow less than totally “American.” In a speech that former president Theodore Roosevelt delivered in 1917, the year that the United States entered the war, he said:

We must have but one flag. We must also have but one language. That must be the language of the Declaration of Independence, of Washington’s Farewell Address, of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Speech and Second Inaugural. We cannot tolerate any attempt to oppose or supplant the language and culture that has come down to us from the builders of this Republic with the language of any European country. The greatness of this nation depends on the swift assimilation of the aliens she welcomes to her shores. Any force which attempts to retard that assimilative process is a force hostile to the highest interests of our country. . . . We call upon all loyal and unadulterated Americans to man the trenches against the enemy within our gates.

Two years later, Wilson, WoodrowPresident Woodrow Wilson gave a speech in which he warned against those who continued to speak the languages of their original homelands or to practice their former customs. Wilson complained about what he called “hyphenated” Americans, stating that

any man who carries a hyphen about him carries a dagger which he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic. If I can catch a man with a hyphen in this great contest, I know I will have got an enemy of the Republic.

By 1919, fifteen U.S. states had decided to make English the sole language of instruction in all their primary schools–both public and private. In some states, bills were introduced that would have prohibited the teaching of foreign languages in elementary schools. These legislative efforts were, in part, expressions of public fear of foreign influences. From 1920 to 1964, American citizenship gradually became dependent upon the ability to read and write the English language, which was increasingly becoming the language of government and education. One result of this tendency was that minority language speakers began to hide their ethnic origins and to forget their ancestral languages. Millions of people were taught to be ashamed of their ancestral languages, their parents, and their foreign origins. Even people whose ancestors who had come to America before the Revolutionary War were told that they could not keep their mother tongues and still be good American citizens. Speaking more than a single language was regarded as a sign of divided allegiance.

Foreign Workers

At various times in its history, the United States has imported people from other countries to work. For example, thousands of workers were brought from China to do menial work during the California gold rush after 1848. Even more were brought to work on the transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869. Like the members of many immigrant groups, Chinese immigrantsChinese immigrants;language of have tended to stay together within their own ethnic communities and speak their own language. A popular modern argument against permitting foreign immigration is that newcomers tend to isolate themselves within their own communities and refuse to learn the local language.

After the United States signed the Geneva convention relating to the status of political refugees in 1980, the nation opened its borders more widely to new immigrants. Russians, Bulgarians, Vietnamese, Mexicans, and many others entered the United States to find work. Some immigrants have entered the United States seeking Asylum, political;language issuesasylum because of dangerous situations in their home countries. These people are at greater risk of Deportation;and language skills[language skills]deportation if they can not speak English because of their restricted ability to explain their situations to immigration officials. Immigrant victims of crime also often face greater dangers because of language barriers.


In 1968, the [a]Bilingual Education Act of 1968Bilingual Education Act became the first piece of federal legislation that addressed the issue of minority language speakers. The bill was introduced in 1967 by Texas senator Yarborough, RalphRalph Yarborough to provide school districts with federal funds to increase language skills in English. It was originally intended for Spanish-speaking students, but in 1968 it was merged into the Bilingual Education Act, or Title VII of the [a]Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This law gave public school districts the opportunity to provide bilingual education programs to remedy the high rates of school failure. However, its real goal was to direct speakers of other languages into English-speaking programs. The bill provided federal funding for resources for educational programs, teacher training, development of materials, and parent involvement projects.

A central question that needed to be resolved was whether immigrants should learn to speak English before beginning to learn other subjects, or should children begin their formal educations in their own languages so they would not be too old to participate in grade-level activities by the time they developed proficiency in English. The federal law gave individual school districts the freedom to choose whichever approach they believed warranted, so long as their programs were designed to meet the special educational needs of the students. However, Reagan, Ronald[p]Reagan, Ronald;and bilingual education[bilingual education]President Reagan slashed the funding for bilingual education by $35.4 million. Many native English speakers believed that the national interest is served when all members of society can speak English. In 2006, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act designating English as the official national language. However, the amendment never became law.

Health Care

The Health care;and languages[languages]Civil Rights Act of 1964 ensured that federal money would not go to any institution that discriminates on the basis of race, color, or national origin. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has stated that health care organizations must offer and provide language assistance services, including bilingual staff members and interpreter services at no cost to people with limited English proficiency. Despite this federal law, as many as twenty-three million people in the United States may be at risk of receiving substandard health care merely because they are not fluent in English. This is due in part to conflicts in understanding. Thirty states have designated English as their official language and require all state services to be conducted in English. When state laws conflict with federal laws, health care professionals can be at a loss in knowing how to react. State laws cannot override the entitlement of the federal Civil Rights Act.

Lack of communication between immigrants and health care providers because of language differences can cause great harm to persons seeking health care. When doctors do not speak their patients’ languages and interpreters are not available, misunderstandings can lead to misdiagnoses, incorrect treatments, the inability of patients to understand instructions for medications and therapy, and inability to obtain information about financial assistance. In such situations, many immigrants are understandably reluctant to seek needed medical care. In extreme situations, misunderstandings between medical professionals and non-English-speaking patients can lead to deportation, financial loss, or even death.


Another area in which language issues make life more difficult for non-English-speaking immigrants is the field of information technology, known popularly as IT. As IT has played a growing role in workplaces, immigrants in general and Hispanics in particular are often at a disadvantage when they search for jobs. More than Latin America immigrants;education ofone-half of immigrants from Latin America have fewer than twelve years of education and are consequently often inadequately educated to work with modern computers and electronic communications. For example, a great majority of pages on the World Wide WebWorld Wide Web are in English, making them difficult for people with limited English proficiency to understand.

Another difficulty is that many Hispanics do not have Social networks;Latin American immigrantssocial networks that greatly value information technology. Even among native speakers of English, poor language skills can be a barrier to information technology usage. A study of former Soviet-bloc countries also reveals that workers who can speak English are more likely to work with computers and earn more money because of it. In addition to having greater access to better-paying jobs, it has become increasingly important for immigrants to be able to use the Internet for daily living in the United States. Indeed, the World Wide Web can be especially valuable to immigrants as a source of information on immigration law and legal assistance.

Cultural Attitudes and Language Suppression

During the early twentieth century, many Americans began accepting the idea that people who could not speak English could not be true, patriotic Americans. The large number of immigrant Italians, German Jews, and Slavic peoples entering the United States from eastern and southern European countries evoked fears among American citizens that new immigrants were not learning English quickly enough, and therefore not Assimilation;and language[language]assimilating into American culture. In 1911, the Dillingham CommissionDillingham Commission, led by Senator Dillingham, William P.William P. Dillingham of Vermont, proposed a reading and writing test as a method for barring “Undesirable aliens”[undesirable aliens];testing ofundesirable aliens from entering the country. The federal Immigration Act of 1924 introduced strict immigration rules that explicitly excluded members of ethnic and racial groups deemed to be genetically inferior. This law sharply restricted the flow of eastern and southern Europeans and totally excluded Asians. It was the first permanent limitation on immigration to the United States.

By the early twenty-first century, most immigrants appeared to believe it was in their own interest to learn to speak English. By this time, members of most Hispanic immigrant families were learning English within two generations, whereas in the past it took about three generations. Consequently, many children of first-generation families now speak English as their primary language.Language issues

Further Reading

  • Kibler, Amanda. “Speaking Like a ’Good American’: National Identity and the Legacy of German-Language Education.” Teachers College Record 110, no. 6 (June, 2008): 1241-1268. Survey of the history of German language teaching in the United States, showing how it flourished before World War I and declined afterward.
  • Ono, Hiroshi, and Madeline Zavodny. “Immigrants, English Ability, and the Digital Divide.” Social Forces 86, no. 4 (June, 2008): 1455-1479. Study showing how immigrants are both financially and culturally disadvantaged by their limited access to information technology, which is overwhelmingly in English.
  • Pöllabauer, Sonja. “Interpreting in Asylum Hearings: Issues of Role, Responsibility and Power.” Interpreting 6, no. 2 (2004): 143-80. Findings of a study undertaken in Graz, Austria, where immigrants were asking for asylum in the United States. Translators and interpreters were found to shorten and paraphrase statements, leave out certain information, and otherwise distort the evidence given by the asylum seekers.
  • U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The Excluded Student: Educational Practices Affecting Mexican Americans in the Southwest. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1972. Study revealing how the educations of Spanish-speaking students in southwestern states have been damaged by language differences.
  • Youdelman, Mara K. “The Medical Tongue: U.S. Laws and Policies on Language Access.” Health Affairs 27, no. 2 (March/April, 2008): 424-433. Article providing statistics on state laws that deal with language access in health care facilities, and how states are held accountable for providing interpreters and translators.


Bilingual education


English as a second language

English-only and official English movements

Hayakawa, S. I.

Lau v. Nichols

Linguistic contributions

Literacy tests


Name changing