Flowers, Katherine S. “Writing Studies’ Concessions to the English-Only Movement: Revisiting CCCC’s National Language Policy and Its Reception.” College Composition and Communication 71.1 (2019): 31-59. Print.
Katherine S. Flowers reports on the creation and reception of the National Language Policy (NLP) approved by the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in 1988. Noting that a large body of scholarship has addressed the 1974 statement on “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (32), Flowers contends that her focus on the NLP highlights the “potential pitfalls” inherent in some of the moves she traces in the creation and dissemination of the NLP (33).
Policy development for CCCC, Flowers writes, is about “engagement” with important stakeholders and issues surrounding writing studies, but she argues that scholars contributing to the creation of policy may not always accord perfectly with each other as to exactly what the policy is meant to do or what it means in practice (32). In the case of the NLP, Flowers sees in it a desire to find common ground across constituencies, which, in her view, led to a problematic policy that should be re-examined and revised (36, 51).
Flowers traces the NLP’s inception from the early 1980s, when Geneva Smitherman-Donaldson advocated for “a new policy that ‘would reassert the legitimacy of languages other than English, and American dialects other than standard’” (qtd. in Flowers 35). Though some argued that the “Students’ Right” document was sufficient, the rise of the “English-only” movement inspired increased attention to the question (36). Chairing the new Language Policy Committee, Smitherman-Donaldson pressed for the new statement, and the policy was passed at the Annual Business Meeting, March 19, 1988 (36, 54).
Flowers examines the policy and its reception through a “sociocultural linguistics approach” that explores “what meanings are being presupposed and created, and by whom, and how those meanings evolve, and to what ends” (37). She analyzes the NLP itself along with archival contents held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) (37).
A decade of correspondence in these archives detailed the development of the policy over time as well as a mailing done in 1991 to disseminate the policy to a wide range of stakeholders, including “school district superintendents,” “the state director/supervisor of language arts in each state,” “every member of Congress,” “every governor”—in short, a long list of recipients (37-38). Responses arrived from governors, representatives, and education professionals from twenty-six states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., as well as from the executive director of the prominent English-only group, U.S. English (37).
Flowers explores scholarship contending that English-only policies advance the oppression of marginalized groups while obscuring the degree to which communication consists of more than languages. This scholarship points out that multiple languages have always been a part of U.S. classrooms and communities and sees the existence and encouragement of diverse language use as a strength. Yet, Flowers argues, “many of writing studies’ policies and pedagogies” adhere to what Xiaoye You and Suresh Canagarajah call a “monolingual orientation” (34-35). Flowers sees signs of this orientation in the language of the NLP itself, for example in that it twice refers to English as “the language of wider communication” and promotes “respect” for English, which, in Flowers’s view, does not need enhanced respect (36).
The main focus for Flowers is the response to the 1991 mailing. Noting that many of the responses were almost certainly written by staff, she assigns authorship according to “whose office or organization sponsored that letter” (38). Her research question was “How did public policymakers interpret CCCC’s stance on English-only policies?” (38).
Expecting her coding to lead to many variations, Flowers writes that in fact each of the 60 responses she examined could be assigned to one of four categories (40). The largest category, represented by 24 letters, was “Noncommittal.” Respondents in this column may have sent standardized forms or, as she says about the example from a Michigan state representative, “grappled with” the issue (47), writing only that they “remain[ed] flexible” (qtd. in Flowers 47). Such responses, Flowers posits, may indicate that the writers may have been persuadable.
The next largest category, consisting of 18 responses, praised CCCC’s anti-English-only stance. Responses from officials and public figures like Texas Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez reinforced concerns about the negative effects of English-only policies and echoed contentions about the importance of multilingualism to the United States’ place in the global community (39-40). Others envisioned putting the policy statement to use in developing future initiatives, although Flowers suggests that such hopes may have been overly optimistic (41).
In eleven responses, Flowers’s coding revealed a view of CCCC as a “hesitant critic of English-only policies” (41). Flowers cites replies from Alaska and Hawai’i as examples of the argument that American culture has always been multilingual (42). In Flowers’s view, “the NLP essentially calls for English Plus” while the superintendent of the Hawai’i Department of Education references “programs that do not center English at all,” such as courses taught in and requiring immersion in the Hawai’ian language (43). The emphasis in such responses, Flowers writes, is on promoting “language rights and diversity” (43).
Flowers finds most troubling “how easily” (47) knowledgeable policy makers such as Senators Paul Simon and Dennis DeConcini found the NLP to be supportive of English-only positions. Flowers quotes instances in which the seven who took this view drew on the text of the policy itself to depict it as advocating monolingualism as an aid to widespread “communication” and as an antidote to “segregation” (43). Flowers foregrounds the response from the executive director of the English-only organization, U.S. English, who writes that his group “fully supports the resolution adopted by CCCC” (qtd. in Flowers 43). In her view, the text itself “was so focused on the English language” that even careful readers could arrive at such conclusions (46).
As remedies, Flowers suggests research into how such public engagement by writing studies is developed and functions as well as how such policies are read across time (49-50). In terms of action, she proposes, first, that “[d]ecentering English” should lead policy writers to “abandon the notion that English is a necessary component of composition” rather than, in Ellen Cushman’s words, “one of many language assets available to writers in this world” (qtd. in Flowers 51). Second, scholars should refocus on “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” recognizing challenges to the assumptions behind language as a right while promoting “a reflexive, practice-based approach” that accords users agency in determining their own language needs (52).
Finally, writing studies can more fully endorse the existence and value of “translingual practice,” which would “focus less on particular codes and more on creating opportunities for students to learn to communicate across languages and modes” (53).