Is English the Official Language of the U.S.?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jul 31 14:02:43 UTC 2008

  Why All Kids Need to Learn Other
 Is English the Official Language of the U.S.?

A few months ago I was surprised to learn that English was not the "*
official*" language of the U.S. More recently I was again surprised
(apparently I have a low threshold), this time to learn that there is a
movement underway to confirm that English is the official language of the
U.S. The following headline caught my eye "*Efforts to make English the
'official language' of the U.S. gained momentum this week when three members
of Congress added their support [to] the English Language Unity Act*."

I have no fundamental opposition to rationale laws that promote unity
without denying citizens access to basic services and the voting process. I
also am open to some component of a language requirement in the citizenship
process. However, if English has never been t*he* official language, what's
the motivation for codifying such a requirement now?

Supporters argue:

   - Language diversity is a recent phenomenon in the U.S., which the
   founders never had to cope with.
   - Before the last couple of decades, citizens of the U.S. had never
   provided bilingual ballots, education, publications, and similar services at
   public expense.
   - Native-language accommodations discourage immigrants from learning
   - Additionally, citizens are angry over their tax dollars going to
   support services for *illegal* immigrants and supporting multiple
   languages is just plain expensive.

>>From its inception, the U.S. has been a multilingual nation. At the time of
the nation's founding, it was commonplace to hear as many as 20 languages
spoken in daily life, including Dutch, French, German and numerous Native
American languages. Even the Articles of Confederation were printed in
German, as well as English. Many schools were taught in German as well as
English in places like Old Germantown, New Jersey. During the l9th and early
20th centuries, the nation's linguistic diversity grew as successive waves
of Europeans immigrated to these shores and U.S. territory expanded to
include Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the Philippines.

In 1780, John Adams proposed to the Continental Congress that English should
be declared the official language of the U.S. His proposal was deemed
"undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty" and the fight continued.
And yet the reality is that the U.S. has always been, and continues to be, a
multi-lingual nation, the vast majority of us whom are descendants of
immigrants. According to U.S. English Inc. (an advocacy group that supports
the pro-English cause), 322 languages are spoken in the US.

And yet the debate over establishing a national language dates back to our
country's beginnings. Restrictive language laws have been enacted
periodically since the late 19th century, usually in response to immigration
waves. The U.S. response to other languages has ranged from accommodation to
tolerance to discrimination to repression, usually determined by a variety
of factors with little to do with language. Americans have imposed
restrictive language policies. California rewrote its state constitution in
1879 to eliminate Spanish language rights. In 1897, Pennsylvania made
English proficiency a condition of employment in its coal mines, arguably
motivated to exclude Italians and Slavs. Security fears around WWI led to
bans on public use of the German language – in schools, on the street,
during religious services, and even on the telephone. Other restrictions
have turned on a minority group's race, religion, numbers, political clout,
and cultural distinctiveness, as well as the majority's sense of prosperity,
stability, or paranoia. Even today, the number one cause of perceived
discrimination among Hispanics is their lack of language proficiency per a
poll conducted by the *Pew Hispanic Center* <>*.

One thing that is irrefutable — language diversity has always been with the
U.S. In the 1790 census, German-Americans accounted for 8.6 percent of the
population – a proportion roughly comparable to that of Hispanic Americans
two centuries later. Proportionally speaking, the language-minority
population was larger at the turn of the 20th century, when immigration
reached its highest levels in U.S. history, than at the turn of the 21st. In
the 1890 census there were 4.5 times as many non-English speakers (as a
percentage) than in the 1990 census. In 1910, 23 percent of foreign-born
whites, 39 percent of Japanese, 41 percent of Chinese, and 66 percent of
other immigrants spoke *no* English, as compared with less than 10 percent
of foreign-born residents in 1990. These groups gradually became Anglicized
– not through legislation, but through social changes due to
industrialization, migration, road-building, electrification, mass media,
and the passing of isolated rural life. These assimilative forces are even
more powerful today and there is simply no evidence that bilingual
accommodations slow down English acquisition. In fact, studies show that
bilingual education definitely enhances a child's ability to acquire a
second language.

Whether or not the data eventually establishes that today's Asian and Latino
immigrants are acquiring English proficiency and assimilating as fast as did
earlier generations of Italian, Russian and German immigrants, it's
difficult to understand how making English the official language will
accelerate assimilation. There has been a massive shift to English and it's
difficult to trace this to existing state laws. This trend has been somewhat
masked by rising immigration levels over the past two decades, following
half a century of restrictive quotas. However, while the number of minority
language speakers is increasing, so is the rate of linguistic assimilation,
evidence suggests that today's newcomers are learning English – and losing
their native tongues, many argue more rapidly than ever before.

While I am still forming my own opinion, it seems to me that declaring an
official language would abridge the rights of individuals with limited
English proficiency, individuals who are *paying taxes* and who are entitled
to the same rights as those who speak English. These laws, in practice, if
not in intent, often punish immigrants for their foreignness and violated
their rights. To protect those rights, there has always been Title VI of the
Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although 27 states have declared English as their
official language, in order to receive federal financial assistance those
states still have to comply with Title VI, which requires that
*vital*materials be available in the language of everyone receiving
subsidized by the Federal Government.  Title VI was best described by
President John F. Kennedy in 1963: "Simple justice requires that public
funds, to which all taxpayers of all races [colors, and national origins]
contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches,
subsidizes or results in racial [color or national origin]
discrimination." That said, the actual cost of supporting multiple languages
– on which I have limited data – should be considered. What's a reasonable
cost for the U.S. taxpayer to bear to support multiple languages?

Whatever you conclude (I would welcome your opinion), and whether Obama or
McCain is the next President, the U.S certainly needs *some* language policy
just as it needs some immigration reform. Now more than ever a comprehensive
plan for managing language resources and ensuring language rights is
critical. But such a policy needs to be carefully considered and certainly

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