Contrary to what some people believe, the U.S. does not have an official language. Even though English acts as the de facto official language in the government, media, and education, the U.S. Constitution does not specify an official language of the country. However, there are currently 31 states which have adopted official English laws that require official government business to be conducted solely in English. This includes public documents, records, legislation, and regulations, as well as hearings, official ceremonies, and public meetings. Organizations such as U.S. English and ProEnglish, which have been campaigning to adopt English as the official language of the U.S., argue that making English official will unite Americans by providing a common means of communication among its citizens. These groups portray using languages other than English in public domains to be un-American and unpatriotic. But the fact that some groups should insist on “English-only” is intriguing given America’s highly multilingual past (and present).

At the time of initial European colonization, North America was vastly multilingual. An estimated 500 to 1,000 Native American languages were spoken in fifteenth-century North America at the time of Christopher Columbus (Grosjean, 1982: 82), and other immigrant languages were widely used before the time of the founding of the U.S. English was first introduced in America as a colonial language, as were two other major colonial languages, Spanish and French (Wiley & Lee, 2009). Spanish and French in particular were commonly spoken in a significant portion of America that would eventually become the U.S. (Gandara et al., 2010).

English is also an immigrant language in America. Since the seventeenth century, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, and other former British colonies have been major sources of U.S. immigration because these countries were favored under a restrictive quota system (Wiley & Lee, 2009). Thus, one of the reasons that English has come to dominate the linguistic landscape of the U.S. is that so many immigrants have come from English-speaking countries.

To understand the current context of EL education, it is important to review some of the major language and educational policies of the past. Since the early eighteenth century, the use of languages other than English in education has been controversial. Depending on the relationship of the U.S. with the countries from which immigrants came, there were alternating cycles of acceptance and rejection of non-English immigrant languages (Gandara et al., 2010: 22). These cycles are aptly captured by Ovando (2003), who divides the history of language-in-education policies in the U.S. into four main periods: permissive (1700s-1880s), restrictive (1880s-1960s), opportunist (1960s-1980s), and dismissive (1980s-present). Following Ovando (2003), I highlight the major policies and practices during these periods.

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