Issue Report: English as US official language

The United States of America, contrary to a large majority of all countries (92%), does not not have any official language at the federal level. English is, therefore, the official language only in a de facto sense, not de iure. Official English laws make it necessary for governments to provide information and services in English only, and does not protect the “right” of non-English speakers to receive govt information and services in another language. Is it time for the U.S. to make English its national language, or is this needless? The debate became increasingly heated in 2010 due to the debates surrounding Arizona’s illegal immigration laws, and to a generally larger and increasing percentage of illegal immigrants present in different communities who are not able to speak English. Also, thirty US states had adopted Official English laws as of 2010, so a large part of the debate is whether other US states should adopt English as their official language as well. Some of the questions surrounding the debate include: would it aid immigrants in the assimilation process and make it more likely for them to succeed? Can other languages be used in the country for certain official purposes, if English is the sole official language? Does official English offend the idea of American diversity? Does it discriminate against non-native speakers? Does an adequate incentive exist to learn English without it being official? Is there anything wrong with the status quo? Do most countries in the world have an official language? Is it important for any tangible and practical reasons? Do English only laws threaten or enhance public safety? Is official English good public policy?

Integration or discrimination: Does official English advance the former or later?

Official English aids American assimilation

President Theodore Roosevelt once said: “We have one language here, and that is the English language, and we intend to see that the [assimilation] crucible turns our people out as Americans.”

Official English unites Americans around a common language

US English, a US advocacy organization. "Why is official English necessary?"

“Official English unites Americans, who speak more than 322 languages (2000, U.S. Census), by providing a common means of communication.”

All US citizens should be able to speak English

Steve Balich, the Homer, Illinois township’s clerk and author of a July 2010 resolution calling for official English: “We want the people who come to this country to become official U.S. citizens and to learn to speak. It’s really as simple as that”[2] This is a common provision in many countries abroad, and a reasonable request by a government and nation that has always conducted its official governing in English.

"Official English" does not mean "English only"

"Why official English?"

“Official English doesn’t mean ‘English only.’ None of the 30 states with official English laws prohibit government agencies from using another languages when there is a compelling public interest for doing so. These include: protecting public health and safety, assuring equality before the law, promoting tourism, teaching foreign languages, providing for national defense, and many other legitimate, common sense needs.” The government can act to provide these services when necessary. But, it is another thing entirely for a citizen to demand these services as a right.

Official English has nothing to do with discrimination.

This isn’t about race. People from every race come to the US and learn to understand the American dialect of English.

Suggesting learning English is too hard for some is racist.

Suggesting that learning English is easy for some races and difficult for other races is, itself, racist. Anybody can learn English. It is not too high of a burden to ask them to do so in order to live in the United States.

Choice exists to learn language; Official English not discrimination.

Real forms of discrimination aim at the inherent characteristics of an individual that they cannot change (such as their skin color or national origin). But, language is different, as an individual can choose to learn English. If they feel disadvantaged because they are not able to read government documents, ballots, or defend themselves in court, it is fully their choice to change this by learning English.

Too many languages for right to govt services in own language.

There are over three hundred languages spoken in the United States. And, there are roughly 15 million American citizens (about 5% of the total population of 300 million) who do not speak English. Giving all of those individuals, in all of those different languages, the right to demand government services in their own language is preposterous. If we give Spanish speaking people this right, we would naturally have to extend the right to all the other 300 some-odd languages and those that speak them. This would unreasonably burden government services, adding a huge layer of bureaucracy and costs. Even then, inevitably, somebody with some obscure language will find that their “right” to have services provided to them in their own language will not be adequately fulfilled at some government facility. This is a bad combination in public policy; a right that cannot be provided adequately that nevertheless adds billions of dollars in extra costs for US government and taxpayers.

American unity never rested on unity of language

Linguistic Society of America Resolution on English Only. July 1, 1987:

“American unity has never rested primarily on unity of language, but rather on common political and social ideals.”

Imposing official language often undermines national unity

Linguistic Society of America Resolution on English Only. July 1, 1987

“History shows that a common language cannot be imposed by force of law, and that attempts to do so usually create divisiveness and disunity. This has been the effect, for example, of the efforts of the English to impose the English language in Ireland, of Soviet efforts to impose the Russian language on non-Russian nationalities, and of Franco’s efforts to impose Spanish on the Basques and Catalans.”

Some countries do very well with many official languages.

Switzerland has four official languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh. All four languages have equal status and children are educated in the language spoken in the region where they live. And, Switzerland is a country that has very strong unity and economic functionality.

Official English discriminates against non-English speakers

“Language Rights Are Protected Under Civil Rights Law.” MALDEF on “Language is not only a barrier to communication, but also an identifying characteristic of an individual’s ethnicity and national origin. […] Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, ancestry, national origin or ethnicity. Section 601 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination based “on the ground of race, color, or national origin,” in “any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title VI of the Civil Rights Act provides the foundation for ensuring nondiscrimination in all federal programs and services, including those provided to language minorities.”[See extended argument on]

Official English is driven by anti-immigrant and racist sentiments

Individuals involved in the official english movement are very often driven by anti-immigrant feelings, or pure racism. For example, John Tanton, the founder of the main political lobbying organization in this movement called US English, had to resign in 1986 after making derogatory remarks about Hispanics.

Official English offends idea of American diversity

America is a very diverse country that has been culturally enriched by immigrants from around the world. As a sign of respect to all these people it should not limit its citizens by introducing English as the only official language.

Official English degrades image of other languages

It gives the impression that English is more important than other languages, thereby devaluing them.

Official English violates US first amendment

"What's Wrong With 'English Only' Laws?" American Civil Liberties Union. September 8, 2000

“English Only” laws, which declare English to be the country’s official language and bar government employees from providing non-English language assistance and services, are inconsistent with both the First Amendment right to communicate with or petition the government, and the right to equality.”

US official language violates equal protection in court

If the government is not required to provide a defendant with appropriate language services, this may significantly undermine their ability to defend themselves, thus undermining equal protection in court.

To access the second half of this Issue Report or Buy Issue Report

To access the second half of all Issue Reports or