Why Few Laws Were Passed Regarding Language in the United States before the 1950s’ and What Changed After the World War II

Why Few Laws Were Passed Regarding Language in the United States before the 1950s’ and What Changed After the World War II


In the last 235 years, the conceptof American citizenship with regards tosocial attitudes, politics, court rulings and legislation has swayed like a pendulum, occasionally favoring tolerance and inclusion, at times self-righteousness and exclusion. The debates have mainly been about language and civic nationalism. In terms of language, many political thinkers have argued for a common language or multilingualism because they believed a bilingual or multilingual country could result in ghettoization and social immobility (Davidson and Fulcher 166). On the other hand, others stressed on the importance of multiculturalism and individual language rights and tolerance-oriented language rights.

Why Few Laws Were Passed Regarding Language in the United States before the 1950s

Before the 1950s the American society was struggling to come up with a common stand with regards to the acceptability of bilingualism and, or monolingualism. By the end of the civil war, the immigration of groups whose looks and speech were very different from the idealized norm of ‘American’ prompted widespread efforts, legal and social, to achieve linguistic uniformity and conformity. Composition and grammar books increasingly stressed learning to speak English correctly and leaving aside all other varieties (Cobarrubias 95).The late nineteenth century gave rise to promotion of a monolingual tradition and emphasis on Standard English as the mark of reason, ethics, and aesthetics; the tolerance of diversity which had characterized the early national history declined sharply, and an English-only, standard-English-preferred policy was institutionalized though not legally. The first half of the twentieth century in the United States was marked by the stress of war and economic hardships. Nativists moved toward stronger enforcement of language restrictive laws and policies, and increased support for more laws and policies demanding the assimilation of immigrants.

However, immediately before World War II, there were few efforts to restrict the use of other languages; instead languages were recognized as resources. In addition, diversity in language structures and use was seen as a valuable asset (Cobarrubias 95). In cities such as St. Louis, Cleveland, and New York, people who were reluctant to take their children out of work to place them in schools were offered bilingual education or instruction in their mother tongue as an incentive to school attendance.

The lack of synchronicity of opinionwith regards to which aspect of language structure to be recognized made it impossible for the states to make any legislation that leaned upon any side of the debate. Additionally, the passing of laws that touched on preferred language was perceived as an infringement on constitutionally guaranteed rights. This made it hard for any laws to be legislated

What Changed During and After the War

By midcentury towards WW II, the view of language diversity as an asset began to look for ways of restricting variety, of cutting back on the resources of language varieties in the United States; and promoted the drive for uniformity and conformity in speech(Cobarrubias 95). Numerous historical events related to language helped fuel the drive. Webster’s dictionary was being widely distributed by the Merriam-Webster Company;The common school was becoming an expected institution across the country,and compulsory attendance laws were being debated in state legislatures. Urbanization and industrialization were bringing the different groups of America, many of which had earlier settled in rural areas and made their living in independent ventures, together for economic reward in urban industries.

Before the World WarII, English was viewed as an American identity and a form of loyalty to the country. There were political unrest and public perception of national threat that stirred nativist’s efforts aimed at specific immigrant groups. English became a crucial component of American identity and loyalty to the United States. Fear of immigrants had become a matter of national defense, and language was used as evidence of enemy sympathizers. Immigrants and U.S citizens alike were suspect based on their national heritage and native language. The Chinese, Japanese and Germans were among groups targeted by legislation during this time (Diaz 47).

As a result, existing language restrictions policies were enforced and new policies enacted.  States began adopting English-only laws. For example,Ohio is an example of rigid enforcement of language restrictions policies. Anti-German sentiments spurred by the war led to outlawing the use of German in newspapers, churches, on the telephone, in public, and in schools. Violation of laws forbidding the use of the enemy resulted in fines(Diaz 48). In the onset of 1941, the bombing at Pearl Harbor catapulted the U.S into World War II. Political measures targeting speakers of Japanese and Germans were enacted based on fear and perceived threat represented by the German and Japanese languages.

The premise that English proficiency equated patriotism was reason enough to question the loyalty of limited English speakers to the United States.Society in the US held a heightened fear of immigrants during this period of war. Public opinion moved political energy to enact controlling measures to preserve English and restrict other languages

However, two key events stirred public and political sentiments about diversity in race, culture and language.One was the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Educationthat determined that children in public schools could no longer be separated based on race and the launch of Sputnik satellite by Russia. In 1957,Russia launchedthe Sputnik satellite which drew the United States attention to the role of foreign languages for enriching the intellectual resources of the nation and for reasons of national security (Diaz 49). Russia’s success in launching Sputnik engaged the United States in competition with Russia to develop aerospace technology. A new found interest in foreign languages became an aspect of preparing the nation’s scientists and scholars. Foreign language programs were implemented in public schools in an effort to build bilingual competency in American students. These two events were the precursor to events in the 1960s.

Other events that helped support bilingual education during the post-war United States and some that quelled acceptance of bilingual education included: The Cuban political exiles arriving from Cuba into Florida as a result of Fidel’sCastro’s coming into power and the public support for bilingual education.Cuban refugee’s arrival was greeted with sympathy and efforts were undertaken by the sate of Florida thatincluded a bilingual education program that prepared students to be bilingual in both the social and academic contexts. Educators and politicians elsewhere in Florida, as well as in other states, were drawn to the possibility of implementing similar programs in hopes of garnering similar success for Spanish-speaking students. Programs modeled after the Coral-WaySchoolwere implemented in other states with a critical mass of Spanish-speaking students with similar goals of preparing students to be socially and academically bilingual and bicultural.During the same period, public opinion becamemore supportive of bilingual education. Political bipartisan support led to the passage of the Bilingual Education Act (1968), the Title VII amendment to The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as an attempt to address the academic underachievement of non-English-speaking students. Public sentiment leaned heavily toward nativism.


In conclusion, prior to the 1950s, the American society was engaged in a social war with regards to whether the country should be made bilingual or monolingual. Proponents for both sides gave their arguments for either, but none had a clear-cut reason for a particular language affiliation. This was further complicated by the constitution which had ensured freedoms and rights of every citizen were respected, thereby preventing the legislation of any laws that would violate the rights of the individual. However, with the onset of world war II, languages were viewed as a representation of the enemy, languages became an exemplification of threat and the citizenryconcurred about the importance of a monolingual society, where English was the only language as it was associated with national patriotism and loyalty. This perception however changed with the ending of the war and the onset of legislation of laws that were supportive of bilingualism.


 Works Cited

Cobarrubias, Juan. Progress in Language Planning: International Perspectives. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1983.

Davidson, Fred and Glenn Fulcher. The Routledge Handbook of Language Testing. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Diaz, Silvana Carolina. Direct Democracy and Language Education Policy in Colorado: A Case Study of the Discourse about Amendment 31. Denver: ProQuest, 2008.

Mariua, Moyna, Irene Martiunez and Balestra Alejandra. Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Linguistic Heritage: Sociohistorical Approaches to Spanish in the United States. Arte Publico Press, 2008.


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