From the First 4th of July to Now: Why the U.S. Never Established English as an Official Language
Fourth of July, America’s sweetheart. A righteous fight for land, liberty, and… the right to speak your own language?
It may come as a newsflash to many, but the U.S. does not have and has never had an official language.
You heard right.
Although the U.S. is one of the world’s largest centers for trade and commerce, and half of the world claims to have learned English from Hollywood classics like “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother”, the U.S. ironically remains an official language-less nation.
But why is it that the de facto English language is not official, and how does this affect the American government today?
Why the U.S. Did Not Declare English an Official Language in 1776
Way before the Founding Fathers signed America’s beloved Declaration of Independence in 1776, the U.S. was already a safe harbor for immigrants from all over the world, seeking promises of religious freedom and land ownership.
At the time of the American Revolutionary War, English was already the dominant language in the colonies. So why wasn’t it part of the country’s founding?
A Philosophical Fight for Independence, Not Language
Dr. Dwayne Wright, a professor of language at Purdue University, speculated in an interview that the Founding Fathers “…didn’t see a need to declare one.”
Although there were many common languages in the 13 colonies, including Dutch, French, German, and a mix of Native American languages, the Founding Fathers didn’t see a potential threat to the dominance of the English language.
Some also speculate that they would not have wanted to offend any of their fellow countrymen who had bravely fought alongside them to ward off the English in the war for independence.
On the philosophical front – the U.S. as a country was fundamentally built on a set of ideas, that “all men are created equal” and that people are the source of a nation, which was a seemingly radical concept at the time. The idea that “all men must follow these customs, this religion, and speak this language,” didn’t fit in the picture.
Willi Paul Adams, the late Germanic academic, puts the official U.S. English debate into perspective for us when he says:
“Colonial speakers of English fought only for their political independence. They had no stomach for an anti-English language and cultural revolution.”
That is, until the invention of American football, but that would come over 100 years later.
But today, if state-wide official languages can be instituted (and 31 states have already listed English as their official language), why is there still no official language in 2020?
Why the U.S. Does Not Have an Official Language Today
Would you be surprised to know that the U.K. also does not have an official language?
English is simply their de facto language, meaning it exists and is generally accepted everywhere, but it is not “official”.
If we want to understand why the U.S. only has a de facto language, we should start by understanding the purpose of an official language.
What is an Official Language?
An official language refers to the language used in government (judiciary, administrative, legislative). It does not mean that it is the only language spoken in a country.
Many countries have adopted English as their official languages (some via colonization, some by choice) including Singapore, which has a total of five official languages, and India, which has 13.
The problem with having just one official language, however, is that all business carried out in government offices (courthouses, post offices, police stations, federal offices, DMVs, county offices, etc.) would be in English and English only.
So if someone needed to update his/her driver’s license but didn’t speak English well, he/she would probably have to hire an interpreter. Same thing for calling government phone lines: you would not be able to speak to an operator in Spanish, for example.
This wouldn’t affect the private sector, but it would affect the public sector significantly in states like California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona, which have large populations of Spanish and Haitian Creole speakers. Court systems are conducted in both English and various tribal languages in Indian Reservations in the U.S.
Many English-Only proponents have tried bringing laws to Congress for hundreds of years (literally) to no avail.
A handful of these initiatives include anti-bilingual education laws forcing public schools to teach exclusively in English. These laws were enacted as a response to the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 which authorized public funds to educate American students in their native tongues in addition to English.
Many English-only law proposals have exceptions for public safety and health needs, and some proponents simply believe that one official language would save the government printing and translation costs (in Canada, for example, federal and provincial governments spend up to $2.4 billion per year on bilingualism costs).
However, they face some ardent opposition.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) continuously strikes back. They publish papers about the unconstitutional nature of officializing a single U.S. language, using James Adam’s failed attempt at establishing an official academy devoted to English in 1780 as an example, an act that was declared “undemocratic” at the time.
In a country whose national holiday memorializes a ferocious fight for freedom and independence for all, we see citizens divided: some find it patriotic to say “This is America, we speak English here”, while others find it fundamentally undemocratic.
The good news? Everyone has the right to think what they please.
Freedom of Language: Celebrating Diversity of Languages in the U.S.
There are over 350 languages spoken in the U.S. today, with the most common languages being:
Although the English language often acts as the lingua franca of the world, more Americans than ever (60 million, around 20%) speak other languages than English at home.
Celebrate America’s Linguistic Diversity this Fourth of July.
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