The United States of America is known worldwide as the land of the free and the home of the brave. It is a country that prides itself on diversity, equality, and inclusivity. But one thing that many people assume about the US is that English is its official language. This misconception has become so deeply ingrained in American society that it is often taken for granted. Back in 2014, Coca-Cola received some major backlash from viewers for its Super Bowl commercial in which “America, the Beautiful” was sung in seven different languages. Critics weren’t happy:
Richard Chase @BornUnderReagan: Dear Coke, Your commercial is a slap to the faces of my Italian and Finnish ancestors who came here & learned English. #AmericaIsBeautiful
Sammy Bacon @bacon_sam22: Coke lost a lot of drinkers on that one. This is America damnit. We speak English
AR-15 @AlexRautio: I will not be buying another Coke after seeing their Super Bowl commercial. #Shame
[Fox News guest host] Laura Ingraham @IngrahamAngle: But illegals will learn English, right @RepPaulRyan? Coca-Cola’s “America the Beautiful” Super Bowl ad #EnglishFirst
…You get the picture. However, the supposition that English is the official language cannot be further from the truth. In fact, this land of the free is also home to over 350 different languages! By understanding America’s historical context, we can get a better idea of what drove the use of the English language forward and what this means for multilingual speakers in the United States today.
The history of language in the United States is a melting pot of diversity. Native Americans spoke over 300 different languages for an estimated thousands of years before European colonizers arrived. It was only until the 15th century that European languages such as Spanish, French, and Dutch became part of the American landscape.
English colonization of North America began in the late 16th century, with the establishment of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Over the next several centuries, the English established colonies up and down the eastern seaboard, as well as in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
As these colonies grew and developed, English became the dominant language of trade, commerce, and government. The English language was also spread through education, religious institutions, and cultural exchange.
Interestingly, it wasn't until the late 18th century that debates over language became a hot topic in the US. John Adams proposed that the US Constitution be written in English in 1780, but some Congress members argued that other languages, like German, should be recognized too. In fact, Spanish, Dutch, and French were also widely used on North American soil at the time. Eventually, though, English won out, largely in part because the majority of the framers of the Constitution were native English speakers.
The US has never officially designated English as its official language. However, several highlights dot the historical development of American language policies. These choices have impacted the perception of language throughout the United States, which can still be seen today.
For example, in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance designated English as the Northwest Territory’s official language. Then, In the 1800s, a wave of xenophobic, anti-immigrant ideas resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act, a product of the English-only Movement.
In the early 20th century, the push for Americanization led to increased pressure to speak English, and the first English-only laws were passed. However, these laws were largely ineffective and eventually struck down by the courts. This created a shift toward acceptance of language diversity, which culminated in the Voting Rights Act and the Bilingual Education Act.
Recently, there has been an upsurge in the English-only Movement, emboldened by politics, cultural phenomena, and certain elements of globalization. For example, some state legislatures have made English the official language for government affairs, which has sparked new debate around America’s language policies.
English is, statistically speaking, the most widely spoken language in the United States, with 74% of the population–or 239 million people–who speak it. But despite the various language policies that have been implemented throughout American history, many other languages have their place in society. Spanish, for example, is spoken by approximately 13% of the population (with over 41 million speakers). There are also large populations of Chinese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese speakers in the United States (an estimated 6 million total).
So why not have multiple official languages? Half of the world is already bilingual and many countries have more than one official language. For example, the official languages of South Africa are Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. In Switzerland, German, French, Italian, and Romansh are all officially-recognized languages. If the question of an official language is on the table, the melting pot of the world might want to think of embracing its multicultural identity. Or should English be the one and only?
Some Americans have argued for English to be recognized as the official language of the United States. Proponents of an official language in America believe they support what is in the best interest of the country. However, the push for an official language can sometimes devolve into a xenophobic pursuit. Let’s take a look at some of the pro-official language arguments that do have merit.
Supporters of an official language in America suggest that it encourages cultural and linguistic assimilation. They believe speaking the same language promotes social unity and the development of national identity.
Proponents also argue that a national language permits citizens to fully take part in the political and social life of the United States because they can more easily use government programs and gain employment. Finally, they believe an official language will speed up the integration of non-native English speakers into local communities and avoid linguistic segregation.
Supporters of an official language believe it will save time and money by limiting reliance on translation services and bilingual documentation. They argue that a national language for government affairs makes it faster and easier to communicate, which will lessen government waste.
It would also decrease the time and money needed for translated documents, interpreter services, and language training for government employees. Fans of an official language say it will improve coordination between government agencies due to fewer miscommunications. Finally, they state that the money saved on translations and interpreters will get passed on to the taxpayers.
Advocates for an official language in America say it will foster unity and a stronger national identity. They believe it will cause citizens from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds to join together and share the same vision for the country.
Proponents also argue that a national language will eliminate linguistic segregation, as everyone is encouraged to learn and use the same language. They think an official language will lead to a shared cultural heritage and history, which will ultimately develop into a singular national identity. In general, they hope that a national language will create less division in society.
Detractors of official languages point to potentially racist motivations and discriminatory outcomes. They also note that a national language infringes upon linguistic rights protected by the Constitution. Let’s explore some of the strongest, most compelling anti-official language arguments.
Opponents of an American official language claim it will prove discriminatory against non-native English speakers. Choosing an official language will create hardships for citizens and legal residents who can not speak it. They may find it challenging to vote, get public services, and integrate into American culture. This phenomenon will disproportionately impact the lives of immigrants, including refugees. It will also magnify current inequities.
Also, an official language policy may make it seem like other languages have less value than English, resulting in discrimination against people who speak minority languages. Pro-diversity advocates suggest multilingualism in the public sphere serves as a sign of a healthy, inclusive culture.
Critics of official languages believe they infringe upon the peoples’ linguistic right to express themselves in their native tongues or preferred languages. International law has acknowledged linguistic rights as fundamental to our ability to form our own languages over time. We also have a right to access government assistance in our language. The inability to do so may limit the social and economic progress of immigrants.
Also, a national language policy may impede language preservation projects, resulting in the extinction of certain linguistic heritages. Finally, defending linguistic rights promotes a more inclusive, equitable society.
Official language detractors claim it disadvantages communities that do not speak English. An official language policy in America could lead to the stigmatization of linguistic minorities, diminishing their sense of identity and impacting their well-being. It may also dilute the richness and complexity of a multicultural society. Critics of national language policies say that linguistic diversity fosters creativity and innovation.
Advocating for linguistic diversity in a multicultural country is important for several reasons.
Language diversity often reflects cultural diversity. By preserving linguistic diversity, we can gain a better understanding of different cultures to accelerate social cohesion. Linguistic diversity also offers practical benefits, like promoting tourism. Most travelers look forward to communicating and interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds. A homogenized world would forever damage the tourism industry.
Finally, everyone has the fundamental right to use and develop their language. They also have the right to access government services in their own language. By protecting linguistic rights, we can build a more just, equitable society in the United States.