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Jennifer Bonilla Moreno

excerpted from:  Jennifer Bonilla Moreno, ¿Only English? How Bilingual Education Can Mitigate the Damage of English-only , 20 Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy 197 (Fall 2012) (208 Footnotes)

A. English-Only at Work

      Social science research indicates that intergroup exposure and contact at work is the single most important factor in reducing group-based stereotypes in the workplace. Cynthia Estlund's Working Together demonstrates that the modern workplace is the “most promising arena” for diverse individuals to meet and develop meaningful relationships. Although the “typical American workplace is [not] genuinely integrated, [] even the partial demographic integration in the workplace “yields far more social integration - actual interracial interaction and friendship - than any other domain of American society.” Gordon Allport's 1964 “contact hypothesis” identified four key conditions that determined whether increased contact with a group led to an improved attitude towards that group and subsequent research validated his findings. The four conditions required to reduce intergroup bias via contact were: (1) equal status between the groups; (2) common goals; (3) interdependence of the groups; and (4) positive support from authorities, laws or custom. While the bulk of social science research in this area focuses on breaking down race and gender barriers at work, this theory is also applicable to ethnicity barriers and educational settings. However, language diversity may severely impede the development of Allport's key conditions.

      Even with increased tolerance for linguistic diversity, there is no doubt that language differences complicate social dynamics and cooperation in the workplace and at school. Communication, nearly impossible without a common language, is essential for “cooperation, sociability, and sharing of work-related concern . . . . Where language differences make conversation difficult or impossible, one of the major engines of social connectedness is stalled.” Under the current system, employers do not have many options to encourage communicative cooperation. They can (1) encourage English-language acquisition by non-English speakers, an admirable but prohibitively expensive approach for most employers; or (2) implement an English-Only rule, an approach that may only function if most employees speak at least some English.

      Employers have begun to turn to English-Only policies of varying degrees in order to achieve assorted goals. In Garcia v. Gloor, an early case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the court upheld the employer's English-Only rule, as applied to a bilingual employee, concluding that it did not amount to national origin discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The plaintiff, Mr. Garcia, was a bilingual, Mexican-American salesman at Gloor Lumber and Supply, a company that prohibited bilingual employees from speaking Spanish on the job unless they were talking to Spanish-speaking customers; the rule did not apply during breaks. While at work, Mr. Garcia was asked by a fellow bilingual, Mexican-American co-worker whether an item requested by a customer was available. Mr. Garcia responded in Spanish and was subsequently fired for violating the English-Only rule. The court reasoned that Title VII's prohibition on national origin discrimination did not extend to language because language, unlike sex, race, or national origin, was a mutable characteristic. While the court conceded that “language may be used as a covert basis for national origin discrimination,” the English-Only rule in this case was not discriminatory because Mr. Garcia was bilingual and his observance or nonobservance of the rule was a “matter of individual preference.” Therefore the court held that the English-Only rule had no disparate impact.

      One of the most significant problems with this ruling was the narrow interpretation of national origin. By limiting national origin claims to those explicitly involving ancestry, the court effectively rendered the statute useless in combating discrimination against people considered “foreign.” Indeed, most national origin discrimination does not stem from someone being born outside the United States, but from “the attributed ‘foreignness' of one's characteristics such as non-English or non-mainstream language, accent, appearance, name or culture . . . .” Recognizing the problems with the court's narrow interpretation of national origin, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued new guidelines clarifying that Title VII prohibits language discrimination as a form of national origin discrimination.

      Today, the EEOC presumes that English-Only rules that apply at all times violate Title VII, and the EEOC has recognized that such rules may “create an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation based on national origin which could result in a discriminatory work environment.” However, limited English-Only rules--those that apply only at certain times or under certain circumstances--may be lawful if the employer can show that they are justified by business necessity. In turn, employers have developed three general types of business necessity justifications.

      The first justification focuses on workplace harmony, particularly among co-workers; the second posits that English-Only rules are linked to customer satisfaction; and the third revolves around issues of workplace management, primarily focusing on safety and efficiency concerns. Employers have claimed that English-Only rules promote workplace harmony by putting all minorities on equal footing, despite placing a heavier burden on linguistic minorities. English-Only rules may also help prevent race-based and sexual harassment by preventing employees from using a non-English language to intimidate fellow workers. Further, employers have argued that linguistic diversity exacerbates inter-ethnic tensions. These tensions may intensify due to the increased competition, perceived or actual, that immigrants have created for English-dominant minorities, such as African-Americans.

      Employers may claim that English monolingual customers and employees are intimidated and uncomfortable when confronted with a language that they cannot understand, and often suspect that they are being disparaged in a tongue they do not share. Though customer preference is not an acceptable justification with respect to race or sex, employers may still invoke this defense in English-Only cases because “[m]ost courts regard this concern for employee morale in the face of cognitive dissonance as a legitimate and enforceable norm” with regard to national origin claims. As in cases of race and sex-based discrimination, these concerns may benefit the employer's profit margin by catering to certain employees and segments of society, but they do so by perpetuating public anxieties. Customer preference concerns have also been framed as an argument for “civility,” by labeling as offensive the act of speaking a foreign language around individuals who do not understand the language. It is interesting to note the asymmetry in language expectations. The fact that courts have not recognized an inverse civility claim - “that it would be offensive to a non-English speaker to be surrounded by people speaking English” - is one of many reflections signaling the social dominance of English and the sense of entitlement that stems from this dominance.

      The EEOC has indicated that English-Only rules citing blanket safety concerns are improper. Employers must specify what the safety concern is and demonstrate that the English-Only rule is appropriately tailored to meet this specific concern. Consequently, a safety justification should succeed in work settings where potentially dangerous substances or equipment are present and “effective communication” is crucial to avoid accidents and injuries. The efficiency justification is essentially a claim that employers should be able to decide how they want to run their businesses, including how to optimize their employees' performance. Like safety justifications, the efficiency rationale is a strong argument when job function actually requires speaking English. The issue then becomes defining “requires.” Efficiency concerns are directly related to the employer's goal of profit maximization, and usually claim either that a monolingual workplace is necessary to run the business effectively, or that a common language is required for supervisors to be able to effectively monitor employee performance. While safety and efficiency concerns present the most compelling and practical justification for English-Only rules, neither considers a “generalized interest in regulating the interpersonal dynamics of the workplace.”

B. Parallel Consequences of English-Only Schools and Workplaces

      Reforming bilingual education policy is a reasonable starting point to change social norms that will have long term benefits on individual American businesses, the economy, and individual liberties. The workplace does not have the same goals or obligations as the public education system, and no one can refute that some level of communication is essential in the workplace. Nonetheless, the three primary social consequences of English-Only rules in the workplace are equally applicable to education settings where linguistic diversity is not tolerated. First, workplaces with English-Only rules and linguistically intolerant schools isolate themselves from their communities, creating a tension between themselves and the community or exacerbating an existing rift. According to language and immigration law scholar Cristina Rodriguez, English-Only rules reflect “the desire by certain parties - employers, employees, and segments of the public - to control the social dynamics of the workplace.” Employers often justify English-Only rules by claiming they promote workplace harmony and serve customer preferences, but “in expressing these interests, [the employer] is also articulating what he has determined is best for the bottom line of his business, [and] the bottom line is inextricable from social assumptions about the propriety and desirability of non-English in public spaces.”

      English-Only rules also interfere with individuals' associative interests by obstructing the development of social relationships among co-workers and fellow students. The workplace and the school are far more than commercial and educational settings; they are social institutions where individuals spend the vast majority of their waking hours. They are the places where important relationships are developed with both peers and authority figures, and the relationships formed within their walls extend well beyond them. Though the consequences of English-Only rules at work are primarily social, they nonetheless should be of concern to employers, as social dynamics affect workplace harmony, efficiency, and ultimately, employers' bottom line. Likewise, the social consequences of English-Only schools affect the interpersonal dynamics of students within and beyond the classroom.

      Finally, English-Only rules relegate non-English languages to private, familial spaces. Not only does this relegation send a strong message devaluing language diversity, it also threatens the sustainability of minority languages and facilitates language loss. Language loss is particularly concerning given that the shortage of “language-competent” citizens required to meet domestic and international needs has been recognized for decades. Language planning and socio-linguistic scholars have endorsed multilingualism as a valuable resource for all individuals and society. Notably, some scholars have recognized that “efforts to address national economy needs for a bilingual work force are cost- and time-inefficient when they concentrate on developing second language competence in monolingual English speakers, while the enormous language resources of the growing ethnic non-English populations in the country are wasted.”

C. Language Loss

      Despite varying levels of income and education, immigrants are acquiring English and losing their heritage languages quickly. “Language loss” is a term describing the typical life of an immigrant language in the United States. Language loss is characterized by a consistent inter-generational pattern that occurs across language groups, and it has been verified by numerous research studies. The phenomenon begins with the adult immigrant coming to the United States and learning enough English to get by in daily life while continuing to use his or her native tongue - the so-called “heritage language” - at home. The adult immigrant raises his or her kids to speak the heritage language. However, once the kids start school and learn English, it becomes their preferred language with siblings and friends, and “[b]y the time they graduate from elementary school, these same children are better speakers of English than they are of the home language and prefer using English in nearly every realm.” The original adult immigrant's grandchildren usually grow up in a home where only English is spoken. Subsequently, these grandchildren typically have little, if any, familiarity with the heritage language.

      Language loss poses a number of problems for immigrant communities. First, a communicative gap emerges between generations of the community, which can lead to estrangement between parents and children, and children and their heritage language community. Those who lack heritage language skills may be considered outsiders because they lack one of the most obvious markers of group membership. An interfamilial lack of communication can cause frustration, miscommunication, and inability to convey basic messages, “undermining the parent-child relationship” and limiting the guidance and support parents can provide and children can receive.

      In addition, it can be very difficult to regain a heritage language once it is lost, especially for less common dialects and languages. Public schools often do not offer programs within their foreign language departments that are designed to meet the needs of native speakers. Some teachers may incorrectly presume that heritage language speakers have high levels of proficiency, when in fact their proficiency may be generally limited or primarily oral. Non-heritage speaking peers may also resent native speakers who excel in oral activities, further disincentivizing language maintenance.

      The causes of language loss are numerous and intertwined. Strong command of the English language is required for full participation in political, economic, social, and pop culture sectors; and English proficiency is a status symbol in immigrant communities. Particularly among younger generations, perfect English is seen as key to being accepted by mainstream society. In fact, today's immigrants are acquiring English faster than ever before. Census data shows that among foreign-born residents, almost 75% of those 5 years of age and older reported that they spoke English “well” or “very well.” English proficiency is advancing particularly fast among children of immigrants and child and teenage immigrants. A study by Alejandro Portes and Lingxin Hao surveyed over 5,000 eighth and ninth graders in two of the country's largest immigrant communities: Miami-Ft. Lauderdale and San Diego. The survey respondents were primarily U.S. born, but varied in national origin, and attended both inner city and suburban schools. The study found that students of all immigrant groups had high overall levels of self-reported English proficiency, regardless of educational background or social class. The vast majority (93.6%) said that they spoke English “well” or “very well” and almost 75% of the students said they preferred to speak English over their native tongue. Research by Xue Lue Rong found that

       [o]f the more than 2.2 million foreign-born children age 5 to 18, 86.8% reported speaking English ‘well’ or ‘very well.’ This is made even more remarkable by the fact that more than half of these children had been in the United States for less than 5 years, and one third for less than 3 years.

      Unfortunately, the pull of English is so powerful in immigrant communities that the heritage language is often neglected, and many immigrant parents mistakenly believe that speaking the heritage language at home will hinder their children's English acquisition and academic success. Foreign-born U.S. residents facing language barriers on a daily basis know better than anyone the importance of English proficiency in America. They may push their children to learn English to protect them from the discrimination that they have faced for their imperfect, or non-existent, English. Subsequently, both they and their children come to view English fluency as a badge of prestige, a membership card for entry into the mainstream. According to surveys by the Pew Hispanic Center, a clear majority of Latinos agree that immigrants “have to speak English to be part of American society.” Meanwhile, 92% of Latinos say it is “very important” for immigrant children to be taught English - a higher percentage than non-Hispanic whites (87%) or blacks (83%). This narrow focus on English acquisition often causes immigrant parents to overlook the cost to their children of losing their heritage language.

      Beyond the family unit, the heritage language community can encourage or discourage the development of language in its children. Adolescents are particularly prone to peer influence, and “the presence or absence of such heritage language groups determines to a large extent whether the language is seen as an asset or a liability.” This finding indicates that language acquisition, or lack thereof, is strongly influenced by peer language choices. However, given the strong pull of English and the language loss phenomena described above, heritage languages are more likely to be seen as a liability.

      Perhaps one of the most significant causes of language loss is the limited opportunities to maintain and develop one's heritage language. In some locales, community language schools exist. These programs, which usually take the form of an after-school program or Saturday school, attempt to teach students some basic heritage language skills, but they are usually understaffed and have limited resources. Additionally, some schools offer foreign language courses for the “native-speaker.” These are separate classes for heritage speakers that focus on their unique educational needs, which are usually grammar and literacy, since their oral and comprehension skills have developed at home. The needs of native speakers differ significantly from traditional language learners, who have no background ability to speak the language. These programs are not found in all areas and can vary in quality. A third opportunity to learn one's heritage language is a “maintenance” bilingual education program “designed to help students become fluent and literate in two languages by maintaining and developing the native language while students learn English.” Contrary to popular belief, most bilingual programs do not follow this model, and aim to replace the native language rather than preserve it. In fact, maintenance bilingual education programs make up only a small percentage of bilingual education programs in the United States.

D. Why Promote Bilingualism?

      For the first half of the twentieth-century, linguists and psychologists believed that bilingualism and cognitive development were incompatible. This conclusion was strongly influenced by the eugenics movement, which “considered the retention of a foreign language and the lack of fluency in English a further sign of the intellectual inferiority of immigrants[[.]” Members of the “nurture school” agreed, considering bilingualism a cause of immigrant children's alleged mental retardation, and framing bilingualism as a handicap “devoid of any apparent advantage.” In 1962, a landmark study by Peal and Lambert, which examined the cognitive correlates of bilingualism in French-Canadian children, addressed these misconceptions. In striking contrast to earlier research, the study found that “bilingual students outperformed monolingual students of the same [socioeconomic status] in almost all cognitive tests.” The positive association of bilingualism and intellectual development has since been confirmed by various large sample sociological studies.

      Bilingualism provides enormous benefits on both an individual and societal level. Indeed, a study by M. Tienda and L. Neidert found no basis for assuming that bilingual education programs, which encourage the retention of Spanish among Hispanics, retard their socioeconomic success, “provided that a reasonable level of proficiency in English is acquired.” As discussed in Section I(C), immigrant children learn English faster if they can take advantage of their heritage language skills while they are tackling the new language. Maintaining and building heritage language skills not only accelerates the rate of English acquisition, but also makes it possible for English language learners to continue learning other academic subjects in their native tongue while still improving English. Bilingual individuals not only have dual linguistic and literary skills but also possess additional cognitive skills and awareness about language.

      Academically, studies have shown that bilingual Latino students have “high[er] educational attainment and expectations.” Researchers suggest the reason for this bilingual advantage is that bilingual students “have more than one way of thinking about a given concept, making them more ‘divergent’ thinkers and more effective problem solvers.” Bilingual individuals also have access to multiple sources of information, which increases their social capital - their connections between networks - and their funds of knowledge, “the[] historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being.” Bilingualism also minimizes the generational gap within families and heritage language communities that is often exacerbated by language loss.

      These advantages translate into economic benefits, as bilingualism opens doors to more career options and higher paying jobs. “Latinos in Florida, for example, who speak English very well and who also speak Spanish have annual median incomes about 20% higher than Latinos who speak only English.” In Spanish-rich communities, such as Miami-Dade County, the pay difference was 50% more than monolingual employees.

      Bilingual individuals may serve society most prominently as “language brokers,” individuals who interpret and translate on behalf of others. Numerous studies have shown that immigrant children frequently act as language brokers, a task that requires and develops sophisticated linguistic, cultural, and cognitive skills. While this term usually references the translation that bilingual children conduct for their parents or other monolingual adult family members, language brokering skills are applicable to employment settings as well. Individuals who possess linguistic and cultural skills can play pivotal roles in domestic and international business, but businesses have a very difficult time finding individuals who are truly bilingual and bi-literate. A 1998 article in Hispanic Business highlighted this problem, citing the experiences of various large businesses in Miami, a city where about 75% of residents are Latino, 30% of all trade with South America takes place, and 43% of trade with Central America takes place. These demographics create a need for bilingual employees that the market does not currently fulfill. For example, Visa International's Latin American headquarters in Miami said they were unable to find bilingual employees who could give business presentations without grammatical errors. Managers of another $20 million company said they had to check correspondence drafted by “bilingual” sales associates due to past inaccuracies.

      The need for bilingual speakers is especially acute in fields such as diplomacy and national security. The government has invested substantially in building a multilingual international corps since 1946, when it opened the Defense Language Institute, the largest-foreign language school in the country. The institute was created specifically to develop multilingualism among government personnel. Despite these efforts, key government agencies, such as the CIA, report difficulty in meeting its needs for critical language skills, even with commonly spoken languages like Spanish.

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Conclusion: Productive Alternatives

A. Resuscitating Bilingual Education

      Much confusion and misunderstanding exists regarding what bilingual education is and whether it works. Overall, research supports “‘strong” ‘ forms of bilingual education, “where a student's home language is cultivated by the school.” “‘Weak’ bilingual education programs, which focus on replacing a student's native tongue with English, have proven less effective.” Immigrant children learn English faster if they can take advantage of their heritage language skills while they are tackling the new language. Maintaining and building heritage language skills not only accelerates the rate of English acquisition, but also makes it possible for English language learners to continue learning other academic subjects in their native tongue while still improving their English language skills.

      Language learning research also indicates that people “appear to have an infinite capacity for language learning, but previous knowledge of one language can help the learner pick up a second language better and faster because it means not having to start from scratch.” Languages are interdependent, and full bilingualism is attainable at no expense to either language; academic skills, such as reading, transfer between languages, and bilingual education actually provides a faster transition into English. The stronger a student's educational background in their native tongue, the stronger the foundation he or she will have to build upon during English acquisition. A child accustomed to being in a classroom will already have the tools they need to understand common school tasks, so they will be able to focus more on learning the language than adjusting to schooling. Indeed, research by Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California has highlighted that the critical difference between Asian and Latino immigrants, in terms of academic success, is not the cultural heritage of the students but the quality of the education they received in their home country. It is unreasonable to expect poverty-stricken political or economic refugees with little prior access to education to perform or progress academically at the same level as immigrants from affluent, highly-educated family backgrounds.

      Despite the evidence supporting “strong” bilingual education programs, NCLB and Unz Initiatives continue to support variations on the “immersion” approach, which aim to teach English to LEP students as quickly as possible, without any regard for maintaining their native tongues. On the other hand, immersion programs are essentially a sink or swim method in which LEP children spend a very short period in a “sheltered English” classroom, and are then promptly mainstreamed into English-Only classrooms with no support. The underlying premise is that the linguistically unfriendly environment will cause the LEP students to either succeed or fail due to the urgency of the challenge. Second-language acquisition research contradicts the premise of these programs and actually argues in favor of extending the time period in which students receive instruction in their native language. Bilingual education provides a pedagogically sound alternative to “sink or swim” English-Only schools.

B. English Plus

      Though sociolinguistic and language planning scholars have embraced the “language-as-resource” perspective, a philosophical schism remains in political and social spheres, and powerful groups continue to tout the language-as-problem agenda. Despite its loud advocates, English-Only is not the only option. Cristina Rodriguez has advocated a somewhat idealistic concept of cultural burden sharing in the workplace, and the broader concept of social burden shifting. With respect to language rules, Rodriguez notes that since linguistic minorities are obliged to communicate with their English-speaking customers and colleagues in English, a reciprocal obligation should exist requiring “monolingual English speakers to engage in a bit of personal accommodation of their own - to tolerate the speaking of non-English in their presence.” As there is a reasonable and widespread expectation that linguistically diverse immigrants will learn English, there is too a reasonable expectation that everyone will share the cultural consequences of immigration. Rodriguez advocates that society at large must alter its expectations with regards to “aesthetic and linguistic surroundings in light of an evolving population.” In altering expectations and promoting linguistic tolerance in the schools and in the workplace, one also promotes such tolerance in society.

      However, social burden shifting and linguistic tolerance will not occur on its own. Reforming bilingual education policy is a reasonable starting point to change social norms that will have long-term benefits on American businesses, the economy, and individual liberties. This will only be possible if Congress embraces the language-as-resource view expounded by the English Plus movement. While the English Plus goal of creating a fully bilingual or multi-lingual society is a long-term goal, it is the direction in which language policy in this country should be moving. English Plus recognizes that English “is and will remain the primary language of the United States,” but advocates “for an expanded network of facilities and programs for comprehensive instruction in English and other languages.”

      This approach must begin with a pedagogical paradigm shift in education policy, focusing on conserving and developing heritage language skills alongside, and to the same extent as, English language skills. Congress may begin this shift by revisiting No Child Left Behind, and perhaps elaborating upon the framework developed in Castaneda with refined educational goals. It must not only require school programs be based on a sound educational theory, but also oblige that the educational theory promote language as a resource that should be developed and maintained. Not only would English Plus encourage ethnic tolerance, it would develop a new generation of truly bilingual members of society and the workforce. Their bilingualism and biculturalism would result in personal and societal benefits, including a decrease in the need and desire for oppressive English-Only rules, and an increase in America's international competitiveness.


. J.D. Duke University School of Law, 2011; B.A. Duke University, 2007.