SHOULD ENGLISH BE THE SOLE OFFICIAL LANGUAGE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA?
English, five centuries back was insignificant, a language spoken by an island nation constantly at war with her neighbours, boasting an unimpressive economy and deplorable living standards (Tunzelmann 2007)1 , flaunting a society devoid of the Victorian refinement with which the world associates the nation of Great Britain today. At the turn of the century, a group of pilgrims arrived from England on the Mayflower – the first English settlers in what would become the United States over a century later. While the British Empire expanded to control, at its zenith in the early 20th Century, one-third of the world population – spreading the use of the English language as they conquered along, the independent republic of the United States of America continued to speak, write and continue to exist primarily as an English-speaking nation, staying linguistically true to the first settlers who ventured in search of a New Jerusalem in the New World.
Over the decades, American English has grown, reflecting the exponential growth of the United States as it became the world leader. The impact of what one knows today as “American English” has been so strong that it has, on occasions surpassed “Queen’s English” in popularity – even in countries that were once British colonies – where people today are often seen rolling their /r/, making their /t/ sound like /d/, or trying to say /hɒt/ (with an open back rounded vowel) as /hɑt/ (with an open back unrounded vowel). It comes as a surprise to many, therefore, when they are told that the USA, perhaps staying true to its democratic ideals that do not believe in imposition, does not have an official language at the national level (there are 37 States and US territories that have made English official, such as Illinois, Idaho, Georgia, Guam, US Virgin Islands, etc.)2.
Before one gets into debating this issue that has undoubtedly polarized a large section of the American population and which has, as recently as the US Presidential elections of November 20203, been quite the point of contention between two strongly opinionated camps, it is important to set the stage to understand firstly why it was that the founding fathers of what became the United States of America did not legislate soon after independence English to be official, secondly, whether there was any other language that ever came close to displacing English as the most spoken language in the country, thirdly, why it is that a large section of the American population today insists on making English official – i.e. is there an element of fear involved, and lastly, unlike many multilingual democracies, why are Americans against having a dual-language policy if indeed the road to making English an official language is taken?
John Adams in 1780, four years since the revolutionary war, proposed that there be an official language in the country and that it be English. The continental Congress rejected the proposal on the premise that while it was true that the thirteen colonies that had joined hands to form the United States were British, many participated in the war for American Independence who called themselves Americans but who did not speak English (having emigrated or perhaps descended from continental Europe or Africa). To the continental Congress, Adams’ proposal was deemed “undemocratic, and a threat to individual liberty”4
There was one language that proved to be a worthy contender to English even before the revolutionary war. As early as the 1790s, there was a genuine possibility of Germany becoming the official language of the colonies owing to large-scale immigration from Germany. Benjamin Franklin expressed concerns that German might soon be so prevalent in Pennsylvania that the legislature would need to hire interpreters. By 1900, German immigrants outnumbered the English by 8 million to 2.5 million (Stalker, 1988)5.
The fact that English has not already become the only official language of the United States has been difficult to accept for many. The first concern that the Pro-English sympathizers echo is that not giving English its rightful place will strike at the very heart of the American nation. They believe that since modern American History is English since American literature is English Literature since the many American accents are proof of the USA’s growth as a predominantly English-speaking country where over 78% of the people speak English as their first language6. English should be declared official. Organizations that believe in this assertion often take to social media to display how the statistics are on their side. According to a tweet by ProEnglish, an organization that believes in making English official –
78% of Whites support official English.
86% of Blacks support official English.
80% of Hispanics support official English.
90% of Republicans support official English.
72% of Democrats support official English7
At its heart, is the belief that making English official would help immigrants assimilate into the American way of life. Assimilation is key to the progress of the nation – a source of unity brought forth by linguistic homogeneity8 this section of the American population believes. There is also a lingering fear among many Americans that if English is not promoted, some other language, thanks to immigration from traditionally non-white countries, might take over, potentially threatening America’s social fabric.
Secondly, the possibility of a dual language system, in force in many parts of the world, is not considered by many to be a viable option for the United States. Although organizations like ProEnglish which believe fervently that English should be the official language of the US do not believe in an English-only policy, movements like English Only believe strongly that no language besides English should be recognised as official. A dual-language system, many believe, could potentially divide the country and possibly give rise to two linguistic groups who may refuse to learn the other’s language. This could, in turn, arise in the United States a Quebecix-like9 situation in parts of the United States desiring to secede, evoking memories from the American Civil War.
Thirdly, American English has spread, thanks to America’s missionaries, military, and multinational corporations, all over the globe. H. Anderson remarks that American English will have “completely absorbed the English Language by 2120”. Anderson calls it the “American conquest of English”10. This, if true someday, would mean that the English language and the United States would be completely inseparable, more than it already is today. Many argue along these lines, claiming that English, American English, is already the de facto Official language of the country, and it is time laws were passed to make it official. This claim is true because as an international student coming from a country where English is not spoken as a first language, I had to sit for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) to be eligible for admission at a US University. I had to prove to the American authorities that I could speak, write and comprehend written and spoken English. Looking around a little, the place that English holds in the American society is made even clearer – The medium of instruction in all major US Universities is English Most major airports and train stations have public announcements that are in English, and the President of the United States has always addressed the nation in English, even the National Anthem of the country is written in English (with no official translations). For many, it is foolish to maintain a façade of multilingualism while living inside a linguistically homogenized society that requires linguistic compliance from anyone who immigrates from nations boasting non-native English speakers. It is imperative then that English is made official.
However, these arguments, strong as they are, can be refuted.
For the first assertion claiming English to be invariably linked to US History, it must be reiterated that during the revolutionary war, many non-English speakers fought on an equal footing for the liberation of the colonies, a reason why John Adams’ proposal was never accepted by the Continental Congress who saw it as an imposition. Also, the position of English as the most-spoken language in the United States is almost undisputable. American English is standardised to such an extent that even if it is not official, it will continue to exert its influence in the world (and certainly within the country) for the foreseeable future.
German had the strongest chance to displace English; in fact, it had nearly two hundred years to do so, but it did not succeed. The conclusion that we can draw is that English is probably not seriously threatened. It has maintained its position as the common language and likely will continue to do so. (Stalker, 1988)
Furthermore, legislating to make it official might do more harm than good. It might result in brutal and authoritarian suppression of any other languages that are not deemed, official. Geoffrey Nunberg recounts an ordinance invoked in Monterey Park, California (A State where English has been official since 1988), echoing the actualization of this concern. He notes –
The ordinance in Monterey Park, California, has been invoked to restrict the display of non-English signage and to bar the public library from acquiring foreign-language books. Somewhat more ominously, a proposed bill in Suffolk County, New York, would not only require the use of English by all county agencies and private contractors performing county business but would also bar the county Human Rights Commission from investigating complaints that might arise out of the adoption of the English- only policy. (Numberg, 1989)11
Also, the belief that having a uniform language system will catalyze assimilation is not entirely true. People speaking perfect English are often denied jobs or apartments and have a higher chance to be arrested or incarcerated if they are not only black, but also Hispanic, Arab, or from any other ethnic and linguistic background.12
Secondly, while there is no denying the fact that adopting a dual-language system could polarize the masses, it is also true that imposing a language could lead to the same result. On either extreme of the spectrum, separatism could rise. The break-up of Pakistan in 1971 testifies to the fact. Chakravarty remarks that the “language policy of the Pakistan government to impose Urdu worked as a potent factor in the emergence of Bengali nationalism in Bangladesh (then the eastern wing of Pakistan or East Pakistan)”13. This took a bloody turn on the 21st of February 1952 (now commemorated as the International Mother Language Day) when police opened fire on language protestors demanding Bengali to be declared official alongside Urdu (which was then the sole official language of Pakistan). This fueled the quest to fight for Independence – linguistic and political, ending in 1971 with the creation of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
With a sizable minority of the United States speaking Spanish as their first language, imposition of English could lead to similar acts of violence with potentially drastic consequences. Implementing and ensuring a dual (or multi) language system is possible – even sustainable. The Southern, Northeastern, Eastern, and Northern parts of India are vastly different from one another, culturally and linguistically. Yet, regional languages are not only endorsed as evidence of India’s multiculturalism and diversity but are also recognised as official.14
Thirdly, while it is no myth that America is at its heart an English-speaking nation with English occupying a central role in day-to-day administration, the pre-eminence of English cannot be mistaken for its right to be recognized as the sole official language of the country at the cost of every other language. Such a thought not only intrudes into people’s democratic right to freedom of expression but also promotes linguistic chauvinism (complementing racial prejudice). If English is made the official language of the United States, the only official language of the United States, such beliefs would find validation. Intolerance against minorities and immigrants would rise (Lucinda, 1992)15
In her study of racism in everyday English language, Hill (2008) contends that the concept of the Standard English language perpetuates and reinforces language stereotypes, racial lines, and the privileged position of White native speakers of English who are unwilling to build bridges of communication with language and ethnic minorities. (Pac, 2012)16, whereby people are not only ‘profiled’ and treated with a degree of discrimination for speaking a language other than English, but also looked down on for speaking English with a foreign accent. The English-only movement gained sufficient momentum during Trump’s Presidency and with Trump’s unapologetic endorsement of English17, discrimination against linguistic minorities has only risen significantly18.
Americans must understand that the United States is a nation of immigrants19. Immigration is at the heart of the USA. With people arrives their cultures, practices and languages which make the US so diverse. Diversity can only be a strength, never a weakness. Moreover, the country must learn from its past. It must reflect on its ethos. While Americans today can take pride in the fact that its global dominance has made English reach the furthest corners of the globe, they must realize that imposition can never be a way to victory, sustenance, or perpetuation of global influence.
There will be debates in the future. The “official” fate of English in the United States will be a matter of deliberation for as long as the fate of English to some Americans remains undecided. But what can be said with conviction is that if the US truly believes in tolerance and takes pride in being called the ‘melting pot’, it will steer clear of legislating to make English official. If the US truly believes in righting the wrongs, the historical blunders it committed centuries back when it wiped the indigenous people, the “First Nations” as the Canadians call them, of their culture, their language, and their basic right to live as human beings, then it will steer clear of making English official. If the US repents its dark days of slavery when thousands from Africa were brought into the New World to be bought and sold like commodities, when those unwilling, shackled immigrants who knew not a word of English were forced to learn it (just enough to be able to understand their white masters and to reasonably communicate with other slaves who were brought from all over the “Dark Continent” into one plantation deliberately so that they could not understand one another to conspire to rise against their master), then it will steer clear of legislating to make English official. If the United States of America still believes that “All men are created equal” and has the wisdom to understand that people’s linguistic identities are as much a part of them as anything else that defines them, and realize that ensuring individual equality extends to equality of language guaranteed through linguistic freedom, then it will know better than to legislate to make English official.
“In Their Gratitude Our Best Reward.” Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, London, Picador, 2008, p. 12. Print. ↩
“Template:Official Languages of U.S. States and Territories – Wikipedia.” Wikipedia, www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Official_languages_of_U.S._states_and_territories. Accessed 30 June 2021. ↩
Díez, By Beatriz. “‘English Only’: The Movement to Limit Spanish Speaking in US.” BBC News, 3 Dec. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-50550742. Accessed 30 June 2021 ↩
“Why English Isn’t the Official Language of the U.S. Federal Government | Spanish Tutor and Spanish Lessons in Washington DC.” Spanish Tutor DC, www.spanishtutordc.com/news/why-english isnt-the-official-language-of-the-u-s-federal-government. Accessed 30 June 2021. ↩
Stalker, James C. “Official English or English Only.” The English Journal, vol. 77, no. 3, 1988, pp. 18– 23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/818405. Accessed 29 June 2021 ↩
“Languages of the United States.” Wikipedia, 30 June 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_the_United_States. Accessed 06 July 2021 ↩
“ProEnglish on.” Twitter, 2 July 2021,
https://twitter.com/proenglishUSA/status/1411003071967248389. Accessed 06 July 2021 ↩
Why English.” ProEnglish, 3 Feb. 2016,https://proenglish.org/why-english. Accessed 06 July 2021 ↩
“Canada – Quebec Separatism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/place/Canada/Quebec-separatism. Accessed 30 June 2021 ↩
Anderson, Hephzibah. “How Americanisms Are Killing the English Language.” BBC Culture, 6 Sept. 2017, www.bbc.com/culture/article/20170904-how-americanisms-are-killing-the-english language. Accessed 06 July 2021 ↩
Nunberg, Geoffrey. “Linguists and the Official Language Movement.” Language, vol. 65, no.3, 1989, pp. 579–587. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/415223. Accessed 29 June 2021. ↩
Baron, Dennis. The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? Yale University Press, 1990. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1dszz92. Accessed 30 June 2021. ↩
Chakravarty, S.R. “SOCIO-ECONOMIC BACKGROUND OF PAKISTAN’S LANGUAGE POLICY.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 40, 1979, p. 1049. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44142064. Accessed 7 July 2021. ↩
“List of Languages in the Eighth Schedule”, Ministry of Home Affairs, https://www.mha.gov.in/sites/default/files/EighthSchedule_19052017.pdf ↩
Pease-Alvarez, Lucinda. Language in Society, vol. 21, no. 2, 1992, pp. 324–328. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4168355. Accessed 7 July 2021. ↩
Pac, Teresa. “The English-Only Movement in the US and the World in the Twenty-First Century.” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, vol. 11, no. 1, 2012, p. 198. Crossref, www.researchgate.net/publication/275454483_The_English
Only_Movement_in_the_US_and_the_World_in_the_Twenty-First_Century. Accessed 07 July 2021
Making English official at the federal level would aggravate the problem of Linguistic Profiling (( Fridland, Valerie. “The Sound of Racial Profiling: When Language Leads to Discrimination.” University of Nevada, Reno, 16 June 2020, www.unr.edu/nevada-today/blogs/2020/the sound-of-racial-profiling. Accessed 07 July 2021 ↩
“Trump: We Speak English Here, Not Spanish.” YouTube, uploaded by CNN, 17 Sept.2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNjcAgNu1Ac. Accessed 07 July 2021 ↩
Letter to the editor. “Linguistic Discrimination: Speak English by Force or by Choice?” The Collegian, 14 Dec. 2017, www.collegian.csufresno.edu/2017/12/linguistic-discriminationspeak-english-by-force-or-by-choice/#.YOUe1ugzZPY. Accessed 07 July 2021 ↩
“‘Unless You’re Native American, You Came from Someplace Else.’” YouTube, uploaded by TDC, 30 Jan. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiXuEk_CyWs. Accessed 07 July 2021 ↩