The idea of a legally official language for the United States of America is a very contentious one

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CDA of Ron Unz’s English Only Discourse

The idea of a legally official language for the United States of America is a very contentious one. In the past some of the 50 states have passed laws about language use in official capacities, as haves some cities, but there has never been a federal law about it. According to Sandra Del Valle (2003), English only laws in the United States tend to pop up during times of national unease, and the immigration boom of the last few decades has been cause for unease for some people (Del Valle, 2003). One of the main focuses of the so-called ‘English Only’ faction is education. Issues based around the education of children are often touchy, and the issue of how to teach English to school children for whom it is not their first language is one of the most sensitive. There are two main camps in this debate, one based around the idea of long term bilingual education, and the other around the idea of short term English immersion education (Del Valle, 2003). This paper focuses on a 2001 article in The Wall Street Journal, authored by Ron Unz, one of the best known and most vocal proponents of English only laws, both in education and in other aspects of public life in the United States.

This critical discourse analysis (CDA) will be based on the Faircloughian ideas of CDA. In his 1989 book, Language and Power Fairclough devotes a chapter to describing one method of CDA. He states ten questions and their sub questions based on the three categories of vocabulary, grammar and textual structure, which he feels are important to critically analyzing any discourse. In this analysis, I am going to focus on the questions of word values Fairclough puts forth, the formation of sentences as active or passive, and the overall structure of the text. Fairclough describes words as having three types of value; experiential, relational and expressive (Fairclough, 1989). Experiential values of words communicate how the creator of the text wants to characterize the natural or social world. Relational values refer to the social relationships that the text is reinforcing through its discourses. Finally, expressive values give a clue to the how the creator of the text relates to the reality it is discussing (Fairclough, 1989).

Word values and activity or passiveness of sentences are all related to a micro level analysis of a text, and the overall structure is related to a macro level analysis. It is important to analyze texts on both macro and micro levels to pick up on the different discourses that are being put forth and addressed. Some of the discourses of this text include discourses about religion, politics and how the two are related, discourses about immigration, and discourses about education,

This text was published in May of 2001 in The Wall Street Journal. Its author is Ron Unz, a businessman turned activist for the movement to make English the official language of the United States of America. His biggest success was Proposition 227, a California proposition that drastically changed policy about bilingual education. Proposition 227 is mentioned in this text and will be discussed more later, but its main point lies in the sentence declaring “all children in California public schools shall be taught English by being taught in English.” (Article 2, Section 305, Proposition 227) Unz is very much opposed to bilingual education programs, believing they are not a good use of educational time or money.

On a superficial level, this text is discussing the reasons Republicans are now supporting immigrants and bilingual education, after years of having less accepting policies regarding those two things. It discusses past policies supported by Republicans involving expelling immigrant children form public schools, and using them as scapegoats for the problems of the U.S.A., then points out that in 2001, the time the article was published, the policies with Republican support were in favor of doing things that would aid those same people, as “the Republican-controlled Senate has voted by an overwhelming two-to-one margin to quadruple the federal budget” (Unz, 2001). This is couched as placating the immigrants, not really doing anything to help them, but putting their children in programs (especially bilingual education) the Republicans think that they want their children in. Another important idea this text is suggesting is the idea of the non-English speaking immigrant as other. Many texts about hot button political issues use personal pronouns such as “us” and “we” to make the issues seem more important and relevant to the reader. This text makes no use of those words. In this case, I think it is because the text wants to get across an extreme idea of other. The immigrants that need some form of English education are othered from the ‘average American’, and the Republican party, who want to spend massive amount of money to help these other immigrants are to be viewed as other as well. This text is trying to persuade its audience of something, but not something personal, it is trying to persuade the audience that the issue of bilingual education is something they should not have to be concerned with, something that their tax monies should not be paying for. This othering on immigrants, especially those who do not speak English, continues as a theme through out the whole text, influencing its other messages.

First I will look at the overall structure of the text. It was published in The Wall Street Journal, a well respected and well known newspaper. Unz’s ideas are fairly inflammatory, and do not seem to jibe well with publication in a newspaper that is mainly known as a financial one, however, his ideas are ones that many people relate to, even if the do not agree completely with the extent to which he takes them. Unz, and others like him, therefore get attention from the mainstream media, allowing them a simulacrum of respectability and acceptance as part of the majority. The article is written in a fairly standard format for a newspaper article. It has an eye catching and memorable title, The Bilingual Burden of Republican Guilt. Putting the two words ‘Republican guilt’ next to each other associates them with each other, making bilingual, and by extension, bilingual education, seem like unpleasant, troublesome things. The phrase ‘Republican guilt’ brings to mind the idea of ‘white guilt’ the idea in America that Caucasian people often feel guilt about the privileges they gain solely based on skin color and go overboard in identifying with or helping minorities. The association of these two term suggests an idea that Republican are going overboard in catering to “tiny groups of leftist Hispanic activists” to make reparations for their previous transgressions. The first sentence is also very important to an article, if reader find that boring, they likely will not continue to read. In this case, the first sentence is “Just a few years ago, congressional Republicans overwhelmingly supported proposals to expel a million or more Hispanic children from American public schools.” (Unz, 2001) This sentence is likely to catch the attention of anyone with children, in the education world, or with an interest in Hispanic or immigrant issues. The idea of congress people, who are supposed to be responsible for the safety and betterment of Americans wanting to remove so many children from their education, is highly inflammatory and likely to catch a reader and make him or her want to read more. Also, the provocative nature of this sentence is designed to make people think about Republicans in a negative light.

The next section begins by stating that Republicans have voted to increase the budget for Spanish-English bilingual education fourfold, and insinuating that those same children will be affected. The Republicans are described as wanting to “expiate that political sin” (Unz, 2001) of voting to expel immigrant children form school. The use of the word expiate is very interesting here, it is defined as “to extinguish the guilt incurred by” (, implying that Republicans ought to feel guilt over what their past policies. Also, describing their actions as a sin has intriguing implications, of a discourse of religion being used; I will discuss that in detail later. The other discourse introduced and solidified in this section is the idea that all the immigrants affected by these proposals are Hispanic. The opening sentence gives the impression that the children to be excluded form public education were exclusively Hispanic, and the last sentence makes the statement that increasing the budget for bilingual education will require “importing thousands of teachers from Mexico and Spain.” (Unz, 2001)

The text then goes on to discuss recent Republican actions and policies about immigration. This paragraph paints the Republican Party as confused and angry, upset about recent political losses and using immigrants as a focal point for their uncertainty and anger. They used anti-immigration as a rallying point for their party and its followers, portraying immigrants as “hordes of dark-skinned foreigners attempting to invade America,” (Unz, 2001) hoping American citizens would share their distaste and put their support behind the Republican Party.

The next section continues to set up the recent history of the Republican Party, mentioning that under President Reagan and earlier, the Republicans had a fairly pro-immigration stance. So why the drastic change? After Reagan’s loss the Republican Party lost some steam, and looked to their consultants for help. Immigration was chosen as a point to focus on, and the new view was decidedly negative. In the mid 1990’s Republicans lost influence in the White House and therefore over the government and country as a whole, and were looking for a way to regain it. The Pete Wilson was elected governor of California on a platform that was immigration based, and did not hold them in a positive light. Consultants saw the success of this, and hoped a less than positive view on immigration would help the Republican’s regain their strength, by focusing on immigration as “a powerful wedge issue, tremendously appealing to nervous blue-collar workers, anti-immigrant blacks, and perhaps even a broader white electorate grown uneasy over the pace of demographic change.” This suggests these are the groups of people the Republican Party was looking to for its resurgence, and also depicts those groups rather negatively. The blue collar workers are nervous, the blacks are anti-immigration and that everyone else is uneasy, these are people who are easily swayed into believing something that is not necessarily true, but politically advantageous for the group wanting their support.

This language of this section is very intense. It manages to portray immigrants, especially Hispanics, as victims of Republican guilt, but it also make immigrants seem like a thing to be feared. They are represented as a “socially marginal group that may be demonized without risk of retaliation” (Unz, 2001) because of their economic and social status, but they are also part of the “hordes of dark-skinned foreigners attempting to invade America.” (Unz, 2001) These contrasting images applying to the same group lets the text tell two stories. Firstly, there is the story of the cruel, heartless Republicans, using the poor immigrants as a political tool, not caring about people, but about votes and power. The other, less obvious story is that of the terrifying immigrants, who are here to overrun America.

The text next relays that even with the massive amount of support and money the Republican Party put behind its new anti-immigrant stance, they failed. Most of the bills they supported failed to pass, and there was a massive backlash. The language here becomes language of despair. The Republicans face “political disasters” (Unz, 2001) could “permanently lose the largest states” (Unz, 2001) and have to “swallow long-term demographic trends, which forecast increasing numbers of immigrant votes.” (Unz, 2001) The people they have recently been maligning, counting on their apathy about politics, have galvanized and expressed their opinions, and are growing in numbers. This section uses language to vilify the Republican Party also, claiming that “party operatives airbrushed Pete Wilson out of all their candidates' photos.” (Unz, 2001) Wilson had been one of the largest anti-immigrations supporters, and now that the Republicans needed to change their stance, he understandably became a persona non grata in much of the party. However, the use of the word operatives implies more than just volunteers or employees doing work for their political party, from its definition of “a secret agent” ( it implies something sinister about the Republican Party, that perhaps they have operatives for more than just airbrushing out of favor members from photographs.

The next chunk of text turns to a fable to get its point across:

Here, the fable of the cat that sat on a red-hot stove becomes relevant. Just as that chastened creature never sat on another hot stove -- nor on a cold one either -- the badly burned Republicans became increasingly skittish on any public matter with an ethnic tinge, regardless of its particulars or its popularity. The same candidates who had fearlessly suggested expelling a million Hispanic children from school now cowered at any criticism from tiny groups of leftist Hispanic activists, who represented few beyond themselves. (Unz, 2001)

The Republicans are compared to a cat, an admittedly skittish animal, and as an animal, it is ruled more by instinct than logic. The cat they are compared to learned its lesson the hard way, much as the Republicans did, and also both were guilty of overgeneralization after their negative experiences; the cat never sat on any stove again, and the Republicans avoided issues with “an ethnic tinge.” (Unz, 2001) This section also shows the overall idea of what happened to Republicans over a short time, they went from brave, anti-immigrant politicians, to scared men, cringing at the voices of a small group of opponents.

The next section discusses some more of the recent changes in Republican policy on immigration and bilingual education related policies. The language used makes the Republicans seem confused and unsure of what their position is. Their policies are described as “bizarre” and “misguided”, and dismissed with the phrase “what ever that means,” (Unz, 2001) signifying that their policies are so off the wall it is not even worth it to try to understand them.

The tone of the text changes here, it becomes more about success than failure because it is now discussing the supposed successes of the English immersion programs that laws like Proposition 227 put in place, the same laws the Republican Party are trying to overturn with their support of bilingual education. The success is described with a much less aggressive and accusatory style of language, “remarkable popularity and success of the new English immersion program, among teachers and students alike, with scarcely a dissenting word to be found anywhere.” The discourse has changed form one attempting to alienate people from the Republican party and vilify bilingual education to one singing the praises of English immersion programs and showing how well accepted and high functioning they are.

According to Fairclough (1989) passive sentences can lead to “obfuscation of agency and causality,” however, in this text leaves no room for confusion about who is to blame for the circumstances discussed in the article. The majority of the sentences in this article are written in the active voice. While this may be convention for writing, it also suggests that the text is trying to place responsibility on the Republican Party. Sentences like “Now, perhaps in a misguided attempt to expiate that political sin, the Republican-controlled Senate has voted by an overwhelming two-to-one margin to quadruple the federal budget for Spanish-only bilingual education programs, largely aimed at those same children,” (Unz, 2001) clearly place the agency and causality in Republican hands.

There is not a lot of religious imagery in the text, but it is used highly effectively. The Republican Party is twice described as having sinned, once as giving penance, Governors George and Jeb Bush are described as the party’s saviors, and the founder of the California Association of Bilingual Education is said to have proclaimed himself “a born-again convert to English immersion.” (Unz, 2001) The purpose of using the language of religion, in this case specifically Christianity, is twofold. Firstly, it serves to placate Republican Christians who may read this article as an attack on their party and as an extension, their beliefs. Secondly, it places the text firmly on the side of right and good, and makes those it is writing against seem even more amoral.

One discourse used in this text is that English immersion programs are much more successful than bilingual education programs. It is claimed in the article that there was a “dramatic 40% rise in mean percentile scores of over a million immigrant students after less than two years of the new [English immersion] curriculum” (Unz, 2001) but there is no data given to support this claim. This is another example of expressive modality, the text using its authority to make statements of truth. In Sandra Del Valle’s 2003 book, Language Rights and the Law in the United States, an entire chapter is devoted to the subject of bilingual education. Del Valle posits that the reason English immersion programs seem to have higher rates of success is that there are many more students enrolled in them than there are in bilingual education programs. (Del Valle, 2003) She also cites studies by Ramirez (1991) and Collier and Thomas (1997), both of which showed high levels of efficacy in bilingual education programs that were implemented properly and for an appropriate amount of time. (Del Valle, 2003)

As mentioned above, Fairclough discusses three different types of values words can have (1989). The first is value he calls experiential value. This article makes use of one aspect the experiential value of words that Fairclough calls overwording: using more words than necessary, many of them having similar meanings, to get a point across (Fairclough, 1989). One example is contained in these phrases: “tiny groups of leftist Hispanic activists, who represented few beyond themselves” (Unz, 2001) and “small but very vocal groups of Hispanic activists.” (Unz, 2001) Those who oppose the ideas espoused in this article are repeatedly referred to as small in number, but vocal. In the case of the first example, they are “tiny groups” who speak for “few,” it could have just been said that they were small in number, and assumed that they did not speak for a large part of the population, but by reinforcing this the text reinforces the fact that this groups apparently are not a voice that Republicans ought to be listening to. The next type of word value discussed is relational values. Relational values express how participants in a discourse maintain and create their social relationships (Fairclough 1989). In a text such as a newspaper article, the participants are mainly the author and the reader, and it is very much a one-way relationship. This text is not one that wants to create discussion between the reader and the author; its main goal is dissemination of information to form people’s opinion of the issue at its core, English immersion versus bilingual education. It does this by using language that creates and aura of truth and authority. One example is the section that reads “the 1996 elections became merely the first of an endless series of political disasters for California Republicans.” (Unz, 2001) By stating that the elections in 1996 were the first of the coming political calamities for Republicans, the text tells the reader that there are going to be more mishaps, an endless amount, in fact. It does not let the reader make up her or his own mind about the political occurrences post 1996, but colors what ever they read next to seem disastrous. The third and final type of word value discussed is expressive value, which Fairclough (1989) describes as “ideologically contrastive classification schemes.” These types of values have to do with identities, and how they are represented in texts. The identity of this text is one of an authority on the issues presented in it. Related to this is the idea of expressive modality or the speaker’s relation to the truth (1989). This text makes great use of expressing things as truth. Statements are made in terms of absolutes, “Republicans overwhelmingly supported proposals to expel a million or more Hispanic children from American public schools” or “Immigrants -- even naturalized U.S. citizens -- were to be denied public benefits available to all other Americans,” (Unz, 2001) and in most cases, little room is left for the reader to consider other possible ideas.

There are two important ways that these three forms work together to influence the reading of this text. The first is that the text and the author are put forth as the utmost authority on the topic. It does this by making statements as absolute truths, as stated before. Another way in which the text is situated as an authority is by not making many references to outside sources, especially those that disagree with it. However, this is something that a newspaper article is permitted to do, whereas other sources of information have to be better rounded. The other way that this text manipulates readers is by telling it what to think, not inviting any sort of dialogue. The audience in this case is expected to listen to what they are told, and swallow it as a complete ideology, not think and adjust it to fit their world.

All the parts of this text work together to form a thinly veiled argument for the English only agenda. It is presented as an argument against excessive spending for a program that the text claims does not work, and as giving reasons why the Republican Party is for this spending. However, these are just surface issues to draw in the reader and make her or him interested in the issues. Once the reader is interested, the other ideas are inserted into the article, many in less than obvious ways. The reader comes away with new ideas, many of them fully formed because of the way the text is written. This text is very strong in presenting its ideas on both surface and deeper levels.


Del Valle, Sandra. 2003. Language Rights and Law in the United States. Tonawanda NY: Multilingual Matters.

Fairclough, Norman. 1989. Language and Power. London and New York: Routledge.

Unz, Ron. Thursday, May 24, 2001.The Bilingual Burden of Republican Guilt. Wall Street Journal. Proposition 227, English Language in Public Schools.

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