Language Policy and Ideology in the United States: A Critical Analysis of “English Only” Discourse

Rachele Lawton

1: Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK 2: The Community College of Baltimore County, MD, US


“English Only” refers to a political movement concerned with the status of English in the United States. English Only proponents contend that national unity, American identity and the English language itself are threatened by immigration and other languages, primarily Spanish. This movement, which has gained momentum since the early 1980s, attacks three primary areas: educational policy for language minority children, linguistic access to political and civil rights, and a constitutional amendment that would declare English the sole official language of the United States (Schmidt 2001).

May (2001) categorizes the English Only movement into four major aspects: arguments characterized by historical inaccuracy about English and other languages in the US, links made between educational failure and bilingual education, inherent nativism where language is used to maintain racialized distinctions, and the assumption that speaking English is a unifying force while multilingualism is destructive of national unity. He asserts that these areas are problematic and need further examination. The work in progress presented in this poster session addresses these assertions through an analysis of English Only discourse and the movement’s historical context.

In this project, I first address one of the fundamental assertions of the English Only movement: that English needs protection in the US. Next, I identify the primary arguments for and against English Only policies and the discursive strategies used to construct these arguments. I also decipher ideologies embedded in English Only discourse and consider what motivates the verbal practices of English Only proponents. Finally, I examine causation between the public debate on English Only and private opinion.

My theoretical framework and methodology are based on the discourse-historical approach (Wodak, 2001), a multi-methodical approach to critical discourse analysis (CDA) that emphasizes the historical context of a social problem and the exploration of related macro and micro topics. As the discourse-historical approach encourages the adoption of relevant social theories, I also draw on Bourdieu’s model of symbolic domination and Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism in discourse as applied by Blackledge (2005) in his analyses of discourse in various multilingual contexts.

My corpus is comprised of texts that support and oppose English Only ideologies. Texts include political speeches, website content, online chat rooms, legislation, language policy documents, and direct-mail surveys. My research also contains a case study of the effects of English Only rhetoric on the attitudes and opinions of native-born Americans and Latino immigrants.

This poster displays extracts from both the texts listed above and data gathered through the use of questionnaires and focus groups. It presents analysis and findings in progress.


Blackledge, A. (2005) Discourse and Power in a Multilingual World. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

May, S. (2001) Language and Minority Rights: Ethnicity, Nationalism and the Politics of Language. Harlow, UK: Longman.

Schmidt, R. (2000) Language Policy and Identity Politics in the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Wodak, R. and Meyer, M. Eds. (2001) Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Sage Publications.

Session: POSTERS:Focus on language policy, literacy, education, identity
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:00-15:45
room: foyer