Does the United States Need an Official Language?


The debate on whether the United States should declare English as its official language has been a topic thoroughly discussed among the halls of Congress for some time now. It is an issue that affects millions of individuals and has implications that may not be entirely known to those that it most seriously affects. Currently, there are 23 states that have declared English as the official language of their respective states. However, for the majority of these states this declaration is viewed as symbolic, comparable to selecting a state flower. For other states such as California and Georgia, Official English statutes that are more restrictive, i.e., mandating that all state employees conduct official business solely in English as well as doing away with bilingual state forms, are being considered (Torres 1996).

Proponents of Official English policies, as they are termed in brief, argue that English has been the dominant language for the better part of this century and should be made the official language in order to simplify government processes. Many feel that by accommodating non-English speakers, one is performing a disservice to them by discouraging assimilation. While these individuals state that speaking a language other than English may be beneficial and do not discourage its use in the home, church or private place of business, they do not feel that the government should have to ensure that these individuals are able to participate in our government through their native tongue (Sen. Richard Selby 1996). This movement is primarily being headed by members of the Republican party, as well as organizations such as U.S. English and English First. U.S. English is a national, non-partisan, non-profit citizens' group whose mission is to preserve the role of the English language in the United States and make it the official language of the government, thereby encouraging immigrants to learn English (U.S. English). The organization known as English First considers itself to be a national, non-profit grassroots lobbying organization whose goals include making English the official language of the United States, eliminating ineffective multilingual policies, and giving every child the opportunity to learn English (English First).

Opponents of Official English policies argue that this type of legislation is unconstitutional. Restricting federal and state employees from communicating with individuals, especially immigrants, in a language other than English violates the first amendment according to these opponents. It also restricts the government's ability to communicate with all its citizens and prevents many from voting, thereby going against the principle of a democracy, the very essence and foundation this country was built upon. Opponents also fear that this type of legislation will lead to ethnic and racial intolerance, and confirm to non-native English speakers that they are second class citizens in the eyes of the government of the United States (ACLU). As may be expected, many Democrats (including the Clinton administration) have tended to lobby against Official English policies along with other organizations such as the ACLU, various pro-bilingual associations, minority based non-profits groups as well as the National Education Association.


Although not often acknowledged, the United States has a history of multilingualism. Before White settlers founded what is now known as the United States of America, this continent was occupied by indigenous people who spoke many different languages, none of them English. Early on in American history, English co-existed with German, and then eventually with French and Spanish. Thus, the Articles of Confederation along with other documents printed by the first Continental Congress were published jointly in German and English. This eventually lead to the 1837 Pennsylvania law which required schools to provide instruction in both of these languages, establishing the first ever bilingual education law. Similarly, California also established laws declaring the state officially bilingual (in existence for only 30 years) and printed its first state constitutional proceedings in Spanish and English. By the turn of the century, Czech, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian and Polish bilingual education programs had also been implemented throughout the country (National Education Association).

In the 1920's the world was experiencing it's first official war, and an anti-German sentiment became more popular in the United States as a result. It was because of this sentiment that 20 Midwestern states created legislation that prevented any type of instruction in German. Accordingly, legislation was passed that made English the official language of Nebraska with the enactment of the Nebraska Act of 1921 (National Education Association). This particular decision however, was shortly overturned in 1923 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Meyer v. Nebraska. The Supreme Court overruled the restrictive act by stating that, "The protection of the Constitution extends to all; to those who speak other languages as well as those born with English on the tongue" (National Education Association). The 1974 Supreme Court case of Lau v. Nichols, concerning the failure of the San Francisco school system in providing English language instruction to Chinese immigrants, also exemplified the courts sentiment when they "ruled that instruction solely in English deprives students of an understanding of the curriculum and of an equal opportunity in education" (National Education Association).

As stated previously, 23 states have declared English as their official language. One such state (Arizona) was the battleground for the Supreme Court case, Arizonans For Official English et al. v. Arizona et al, No. 95-974 (Cornell Law). In 1988 a referendum was passed amending the state constitution by not only designating English as the official language of Arizona, but also deeming it the official language of all state forms, ballots, and schools. Exceptions were made for emergency and law-enforcement situations, as well as foreign language instruction in schools. According to the New York Times, the amendment, known as Article 28 was challenged by Maria Yñiquez - a state employee who filed medical malpractice claims (Greenhouse 1996). Ms. Yñiquez claimed that Article 28 prevented her from assisting Spanish-speaking residents, and thus violated her right to free speech as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Cornell Law). The Federal District Court sided with Ms. Yñiquez by mandating that the amendment indeed violated the free speech of government workers as protected by the Constitution (Greenhouse 1996).

The Governor of Arizona did not appeal the rulings, although a private group known as Arizonans for Official English (AOE) decided to take over the case. Immediately following the appeal with AOE, Ms. Yñiguez resigned from her position as a state employee to work in the private sector. The State Attorney General notified the 9th Circuit Court of Ms. Yñiguez's status and suggested the case be declared moot. The court disagreed and in a 6-to-5 ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the Arizona law to violate free speech and ruled that a person's choice of language is a right to speech, " 'Speech in any language is still speech, and the decision to speak in another language is a decision involving speech alone,' Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the majority" (First Amendment News 1996). The group Arizonans for Official English refuted the decision and appealed to the Supreme Court (Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, No. 95-974). The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and on March 3, 1997 delivered a verdict. The Supreme Court ruled that the case in question was indeed moot because Ms. Yñiguez no longer satisfied the case requirements. Therefore, the 9th Circuit's ruling was annulled and the case was sent back to the Federal District Court, where it was to be dismissed. In the end, the Supreme Court in no way expressed a view on the constitutionality of Article 28 (Cornell Law).

Public Opinion Data

It is only logical to deduce that reviewing cases concerning Official English policies on a state level will lead to legislative action on a national level. Pending legislation now exists which attempt to amend the Constitution of the United States by declaring English the official language of the government. In order to accurately debate this issue however, it is necessary to discuss the state of affairs that currently exist in this country. Doing so will enable an individual to analyze each side of the argument and properly put things into perspective.

It is vital for law makers to take into account the goals and ideals of the very people they represent. As such, polls are consistently being created to gauge the feelings of the general public concerning social issues. Various media sources, research firms, and government agencies have attempted to specifically assess the sentiment of the general public concerning multilingualism and English Only policies. The following results are extracted from the General Social Survey and represent data drawn solely from the 1994 file, as this was the first year survey questions concerning the English language were introduced:

The data shows that although the majority of individuals feel that English should be the official language of the United States, when presented with specific circumstances such as the creation of bilingual ballots, individuals tend to be more understanding and support such bilingual action. I believe that this is a direct result of a lack of information and understanding on the part of respondents. If the United States were to declare English as its official language, this action would not be symbolic. As has been mentioned previously, the ramifications of such an action are great and would affect all types of communication and government procedures. It is reasonable to assume that a study is not necessarily valid if the population surveyed takes a position on an issue that they do not fully understand. Nevertheless, this argument is difficult to affirm as respondents may be hesitant to admit that they did not fully understand the scope of an issue.

Debate For Official English Policies

Proponents of Official English laws argue various reasons as to why such legislation is necessary. They state that not only will the government and citizens of this country benefit, but this form of legislation will be advantageous to immigrants as well. All public documents, as well as meetings, ceremonies and hearings will solely be conducted in English. By not accommodating non-English speakers, an incentive is given to these individuals to learn English and thus become more assimilated into society. As more immigrants learn English, the linguistic enclaves that divide this country into separate groups will diminish and thus lead to a decrease in racial and ethnic conflicts. Accordingly, these individuals can become more productive members of society and escape any dependence they may have on others. Knowledge of English also creates greater economic opportunities, as most non-English speakers remain in low-skilled, low-paying jobs. Similarly, their participation in the electoral process will most likely increase and therefore assure them a more notable presence in the democratic process (U.S. English).

Another issue of concern for these proponents, is the amount of money being spent on multi-lingual documents. With the U.S. Census Bureau recording over 300 languages spoken in American homes, who decides the languages that documents are translated into, and how is this decision made? At what point is the line drawn? Proponents of Official English laws feel that translating government documents, even into just a handful of additional languages is inefficient and an unnecessary cost. For example, according to the New York Times, in 1994 the IRS translated 500,000 income tax forms into Spanish. The project cost an estimated $113,000 and only 718 forms were returned (Schmitt 1996). Funds spent on these services should alternatively be utilized toward providing English instruction for immigrants. Doing so would simplify government operations and provide for a common means of communication. "Official English legislation recognizes the need for common sense exceptions permitting the use of other languages for emergency, safety and health services; criminal judicial proceedings; foreign language instruction and tourism promotion. It does not affect the languages spoken in private businesses, religious services or private conversations" (U.S. English).

The most emotional argument that proponents of Official English legislation will debate, is the idea of unity. The United States has always been referred to as a "melting pot", a place where individuals of all different cultures come together. Although our roots may be diverse, we unite because we are American. One of the bonds that strengthens this unity is our language, English. There are eighty countries around the world with one official language and as a 'leading nation' the United States should be able to come forward as one nation, one people under one language (House of Representatives 1996).

Debate Against Official English Policies

Individuals against Official English legislation also have much to say on the issue. The argument they are most adamant about concerns the violation of civil rights and liberties associated with the legislation. The passing of Official English laws will not permit equal access to government services because of the restriction in the government's ability to communicate with non-English speakers. "These limits, especially as they apply to such rights and services as voting assistance, education in a comprehensible language, health services and information, financial assistance such as social security and police protection, infringe upon important and fundamental rights" (ACLU 1995). Opponents of this legislation also state that the First Amendment rights of public employees and elected officials, as well as their constituents would be violated. Freedom of speech for these individuals is impaired, thereby making this type of legislation unconstitutional (ACLU 1995).

Aside from the fact that the government of the United States would potentially be isolating themselves from millions of people, individuals oppose English Only laws because they feel these laws do little if anything to aid non-English speakers become integrated into American society. The importance of English is obviously known if 97% of the population is proficient in the language. Opponents argue that Congress need not establish legislation in order to teach others the importance of the language (ACLU 1995). Studies show that more individuals in this country are learning English at a faster rate than previous generations. Lauren Owen, an associate of St. Olaf College stated that, "A report by the National Education Association noted that there were nearly 66,000 immigrants in Los Angeles and New York City alone on waiting lists for adult English classes. The demand for English as a Second Language (ESL) has become so great, that there are schools that operate 24 hours a day to accommodate interested students" (Owen).

In order to successfully compete on the international market, it is important for individuals to acquire foreign language skills. This idea is inconsistent with the Official English laws that have been proposed. Foreign language skills should be fostered and taught in addition to the English language. From this standpoint stems two additional concerns. The first is that by forging resistance to languages other than English, English Only legislation undermines the country's commitment to the development of bilingual education programs. This is a right that is protected by law under the Bilingual Education Act (Title VII) which was launched in 1968 (English First). The other major concern is the lack of support for those individuals who belong to US territories and are non-English speakers but would be affected by such legislation, as well as the indigenous people of this country who are really the first Americans. Official English legislation would repeal the minor protection that exists for these people (i.e. the Native American Languages Act of 1992 [P.L. 102524]), not to mention the fact that historically, these languages preceded the use of English (Owen). "English-only laws would also forbid official use of American Sign Language, preventing government communication with the hard of hearing" (Intercultural Development Research Association).

The question then that opponents of this legislation pose to the proponents, is that if the United States government has thrived without such a declaration of an official language for the past two hundred years, why is there a need to do so now? The very fact that the United States is a "melting pot" should confirm to all a sense of inclusiveness. More importantly however, is that what binds us together as a nation is not so much our language, but our freedoms and ideals (Schmitt).

Pending Legislation

Pending legislation concerning English Only policies exist on both the state and federal level. The majority of such bills however, focus on legislation that entails declaring English as the official language of the Federal Government. The following are the newest proposals made by the 105th Congress thus far:

H.R. 123 - Bill Emerson English Language Empowerment Act of 1997 (Introduced in eh House). This bill seeks to amend title 4 of the United States Code, and declare English the official language of our Government. It seeks to preserve the role of the English language and enable immigrants to better assimilate into American society. Although it mandates the Federal Government to conduct it's official business in English, it does not promote the denial of services to any individual, nor does it prohibit Federal employees from orally communicating with others in a language other than English. H.R. 123 also requests that any monetary savings that are incurred as a direct result of this bill should be used toward the teaching of English to non-English speakers. If this bill were to pass, it is the administrative aspect of the Federal Government that would be most affected. Because, although government forms, publications, and all remaining documents or policies will be created in English, this legislation would not affect matter of national security, international relations, the public health and/or safety, activities related to the Census Bureau, protection concerning victims of crime, art, or phrases of other languages

H. R. 622 - Declaration of Official Language Act of 1997 (Introduced in the House). This bill, similar to H. R. 123, seeks to amend title 4 of the United States Code by declaring English the official language of the Federal Government. H. R. 622 although, is not as appeasing to non-English speakers. Not only would English be the official language of our Government, but English language proficiency would be enforced for applicants considering citizenship. In the event this bill were to pass, this legislation would also repeal bilingual voting requirements from the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As such, specified jurisdictions would no longer be mandated to provide bilingual ballots and election material.

H. J. RES. 37 - Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States establishing English as the official language of the United States (Introduced in the House). This appears to be the most serious of bills as it seeks to amend on of the founding documents of this nation. However, it is not as detailed as the proposed legislation's mention above. H. J. RES. 37 declares English as the official language of the United States, thereby making it the language of use for all official acts, documents, elections or judicial proceedings of the Government. This bill may be left up to interpretation as Section 2 stipulates that "Congress and the States shall enforce this article by appropriate legislation." There is also a symbolic difference between this bill and the previous two proposed legislations. Previous bills declare English the official language of the Federal Government, and acknowledge non-English speakers. This proposal on the other hand, declares English the official language of the United States. This is a fundamental difference that says a lot about the role English is intended to play in our society.

Aside from these specific proposals, there is an alternative proposal that empowers opponents of English Only legislation. H. Con. Res. 4 - Entitled the 'English Plus Resolution' was introduced into the House of Representatives. It acknowledges the importance of English in our society, yet deems that declaring an official language goes against cultural diversity, and jeopardizes individuals by denying non-English speakers services in their native languages. This bill also takes note of the fact that being multilingual is a vital skill that is necessary to compete on the international market. Within this legislation, the House also declares that it shall pursue policies that encourage residents to become proficient in the English language as well as make an effort to preserve foreign languages, especially those becoming extinct and indigenous to this country.


This issue of whether the United States should have an official language is complex. The matter does not focus on language alone, but conjures up various different issues. Feelings of financial burden, anti-immigrant sentiment, patriotism, and unity motivate many individuals who oppose multilingualism on the level of the Federal Government. Individuals who oppose establishing an official language have alternative feelings of unequal treatment, discriminatory action, view multilingual as an asset, and believe such legislation is unnecessary. With the increasing number of immigrants coming into this country, this matter can not be ignored.

The creation of the 'English Plus' legislation as defined earlier, appears to be a step in the right direction by establishing a compromise. This policy clearly outlines what it intends to pursue. A significant problem that exists, and was exemplified when analyzing the public opinion data, was the fact that the general public is not aware of the ramifications of English Only legislation. As was seen earlier, if a significant percentage of individuals believe this type of legislation should exist, and also believe that bilingual ballots should be used when necessary, as well as the implementation of bilingual education, a compromise needs to be reached. Elected officials must remember who they represent, and who allowed them to be in their position. As such, the question of whether or not the United States needs an official language can only be answered if and when the general public is fully informed on the situation, and the consequences of such action.


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