Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Changing My Mind about Language Policy

Katherine S. Flowers

When I first started studying language policy, I thought I knew where it came from, how it worked, and why it mattered. In my view at the time, language policy was about national politicians trying to manage the language use of perceived outsiders.

Then, ten years ago, I started researching what would become the book Making English Official: Writing and Resisting Local Language Policies. Working on this book upended many of my beliefs and assumptions about language policy. In fact, my main argument is that language policy is not primarily national, and in the United States, it’s not even really that nationalist; instead, the people who actually succeed in writing and promoting language policies tend to frame their work much more locally. That argument applies both to people who enact restrictive English-only policies and to people who work against such policies.

I should not have been surprised that I changed my mind during the research and writing process. After all, writing is a way of learning (and unlearning). And the purpose of research is to learn new things. Still, published books can give the false impression that the knowledge has always been there, just waiting to be written down. So, I wanted to take this opportunity to pull back the curtain and reflect on three other ideas from the book that only came to me mid-way through.

Language policymaking is a group effort

People like Senator S. I. Hayakawa and activist John Tanton loom large in histories of US language policy, and for good reason. They both had a big impact, and I cover both extensively in the book. More generally, language policies often have one main sponsor, and it makes sense to focus on those sponsors. What I realized during the course of interviewing language policymakers, though, is that none of them work alone. Language policymakers do not start writing a policy by staring at a blank screen (or a blank piece of paper) by themselves. Instead, they typically get help in three ways. First, they use templates, either from other similar governments or from language policy organizations. Second, they may work with ghostwriters (people who craft much of the content but do not actually have their name on the public document). Third, and most informally, they workshop their ideas with colleagues, friends, lawyers, lobbyists, activists, and beyond.

These collaborative writing processes matter because they mean that in order to understand how language policy works, we cannot just think in terms of what one politician says or does. And for educators and activists hoping to change language policies in their own communities, the takeaway is that collective action is key.

The English-only movement is not really about immigration

In the United States, there is a trope that English-only policies are really anti-immigrant policies in disguise. I’m sure I’ve even said that myself on occasion. And there is some truth to it. After all, there has long been cross-pollination between organizations seeking to restrict immigration and English-only organizations. As I dug into the history of this movement, though, I kept finding exceptions. The earliest English-only efforts focused on enslaved Black people and, soon after, Indigenous people (who are not immigrants). Emmy Shafer, who organized around an Anti-Bilingualism Ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Florida, scapegoated Cuban and Haitian refugees (who are not immigrants). Many Spanish-speaking families in the Southwest lived there before that land was even part of the United States (and so, they are not immigrants). Puerto Ricans are common targets (and they are not immigrants either). My current town of Lowell, Massachusetts, passed a 1989 English-only referendum that affected Southeast Asian refugees (again, not immigrants). Conversely, white immigrants are usually not who contemporary policymakers have in mind.

The exceptions piled up so high around me that I realized I was way beyond “the exception that proves the rule” territory. Language policy is about power, identity, belonging, and community, but not necessarily immigration. At least over the past 50 years, race tends to be more salient, and things like citizenship, Indigeneity, and disability play key roles as well. 

Anyone can change their mind about language policy

If I were going to a desert island and I could only bring one academic article, it might be Joshua Fishman’s (1988) “‘English only’: Its ghosts, myths, and dangers.” It is brilliant. It is wickedly funny. It is also depressing. After shedding much-needed light on the language policies emerging at the time, Fishman (1988) asks “Why are facts so useless in the discussion?” (p. 131). In other words, why aren’t people willing to reconsider? I used to feel the same way. As I wrote the book, though, I found people and places where people did reconsider (and not always in the way you might expect).

Just this year, Nashville, Tennessee’s Human Relations Commission hosted a press conference to mark the 15th anniversary of the defeat of a local English-only referendum. About nine minutes in, leader Tom Negri reflected, “We had an incredible group of people come together […] and that’s incredible to say because when it was polled, 82% of Nashvillians were in favor” of making English the only official language. In other words, thousands of people changed their minds.


Fishman, J. A. (1988). ‘English only’: Its ghosts, myths, and dangers. International Journal of the

Sociology of Language, 74, 125–140.

Metro Human Relations Commission. (2024, January 23). Language accessibility press conference. Facebook Live. https://www.facebook.com/NashMHRC/videos/1302160744520333

Making English Official by Katherine S. Flowers

About The Author

Katherine S. Flowers

Katherine S. Flowers, University of Massachusetts, Lowell Katherine S. Flowers is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She specializes in l...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!