Does the US Need an Official Language?

By Raquel W. ’21

Most countries have an official language. For example, France’s is French, and Spain’s is Spanish. However, the US does not have an official language, despite English’s function as the de-facto official language used in legal documents, court proceedings and taught in schools. Though English is most commonly spoken, 300+ languages are spoken in the US. Even dating back to colonial times, languages like Dutch, German, French and Native American languages were spoken alongside English. Today, the 6 most commonly spoken languages in the US are English, Spanish, Chinese (including both Mandarin and Cantonese), French/French Creole, Tagalog (including Filipino) and Vietnamese.

So, should the US have an official language? Supporters of this shift argue that it will bring unity to the US through a single language of communication, America could appear more strongly rooted in its identity, especially in global trade and affairs. To refute the argument that having English as the official language would exclude immigrants who speak other languages, this side argues that English would simply represent the idea that the most commonly spoken language in the US is English, not that other languages can’t be spoken or used. In 1981, Senator S.I. Hayawaka proposed the English Language amendment that would set English as the sole official language of the US. This amendment did not pass. Then in 1983, Hayawaka and white nationalist John Tanton founded U.S. English, a nonprofit organization that works to set English as the only official language of the US. An immigrant himself (Canadaian born and of Japanese heritage), Hayawaka argued that English as an official language had the power to unify groups of immigrants who spoke different languages. He also argued that it would eliminate any languages, mainly Spanish, that he viewed as “competitors” to the English language. Later, in 1994, John Tanton created ProEnglish, another nonprofit that was specifically designed to defend Arizona’s official English laws in the Supreme Court.

On the other hand, our founding fathers did not set an official language not only because there were many languages besides English spoken in the US at the time the Constitution was written but also because the French, Native Americans and some enslaved African Americans fought with the colonists for independence. We could argue that Native American languages could best historically reflect the US’ true linguistic origins. Even so, the Constitution, in its first amendment, grants the right to free speech, thereby granting citizens the right to speak their own languages.  In many ways, the newly-proposed amendment socially marginalizes certain groups of immigrants and other language speakers by giving American nationalists the argument that celebrating a culture that is not “mainstream white American” is un-American and therefore, unwelcome in this country. 

It is even probable that it could spark a wave of Hispanophobia, with Spanish being the second most widely spoken language in the US and a majority of our immigrants are from Latin American countries. Throughout our history, the US has had a reputation of preventing other groups from speaking their native languages. For example, with the Germans after WWI, the Japanese during WWII, native Hawaiians during annexation and African-Americans during slavery. Thus, this debate may not be completely concerned with language and it may be more concerned with the race with which these languages are associated. Creating an official language undermines the US’ representation as a “melting pot,” a nation built by different groups of immigrants who brought their culture, adding to the grand diversity of backgrounds that is the United States. The United States Census Bureau found that in 2015, there were at least 163 languages spoken at home.

So, even though the US has no official language, it’s clear that English is the government’s favored language. This begs the question: is the US government doing enough to provide for citizens whose first language isn’t English? Let’s take a look at some events that have taken place in the last 20 or so years surrounding this issue. In 2000, Bill Clinton passed Executive Order 13166 which required that federal documents be translated into other languages, if needed, for low-proficiency English speakers. And in 2009, the Health Care Language Assistance Act was passed which required medical services to provide translators and translated materials as well as take into account ethnicity and race in order to make the most accurately treat patients. However, in 2005, the English Language Unity Act was first introduced, attempting to make English the US’ official language. In 2006, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, requiring immigrants to be proficient in English in order to gain legal status which was later added to the Inhofe amendment. Even recently, this issue has resurfaced in the 2020 Democratic Presidential Debate when Pete Buttigieg called out Senator Amy Klobuchar for voting in favor of the English Language Amendment in 2007, though Klobuchar has declared that she has since switched stances on this topic.

Though the absence of an official language dates back to July 4, 1776, it may be a more relevant topic now more than ever with the volatile political climate, full of racial tensions and anti-immigration policies being pushed by the oval office. Maybe we need this unification to unite our population that has a diverse blend of languages, or maybe we should continue to respect each person’s right to speak their own language. So the question remains: would making English the US’ official language unify or divide us?

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