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Debate: English as US official language

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Background and context

The United States of America, contrary to a large majority of all countries (92%), does not not have any official language at the federal level. English is, therefore, the official language only in a de facto sense, not de iure.
Official English laws make it necessary for governments to provide information and services in English only, and does not protect the "right" of non-English speakers to receive govt information and services in another language. Is it time for the U.S. to make English its national language, or is this needless? The debate became increasingly heated in 2010 due to the debates surrounding Arizona's illegal immigration laws, and to a generally larger and increasing percentage of illegal immigrants present in different communities who are not able to speak English. Also, thirty US states had adopted Official English laws as of 2010, so a large part of the debate is whether other US states should adopt English as their official language as well. Some of the questions surrounding the debate include: would it aid immigrants in the assimilation process and make it more likely for them to succeed? Can other languages be used in the country for certain official purposes, if English is the sole official language? Does official English offend the idea of American diversity? Does it discriminate against non-native speakers? Does an adequate incentive exist to learn English without it being official? Is there anything wrong with the status quo? Do most countries in the world have an official language? Is it important for any tangible and practical reasons? Do English only laws threaten or enhance public safety? Is official English good public policy?

See Wikipedia's "English-only" article for more background.

Contents

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Integration or discrimination: Does official English advance the former or later?

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Yes

  • Official English aids American assimilation President Theodore Roosevelt once said: "We have one language here, and that is the English language, and we intend to see that the [assimilation] crucible turns our people out as Americans."[1]
  • All US citizens should be able to speak English. Steve Balich, the Homer, Illinois township's clerk and author of a July 2010 resolution calling for official English: "We want the people who come to this country to become official U.S. citizens and to learn to speak. It's really as simple as that"[2] This is a common provision in many countries abroad, and a reasonable request by a government and nation that has always conducted its official governing in English.
  • "Official English" does not mean "English only" "Why official English?": "Official English doesn't mean 'English only.' None of the 30 states with official English laws prohibit government agencies from using another languages when there is a compelling public interest for doing so. These include: protecting public health and safety, assuring equality before the law, promoting tourism, teaching foreign languages, providing for national defense, and many other legitimate, common sense needs." The government can act to provide these services when necessary. But, it is another thing entirely for a citizen to demand these services as a right.
  • Official English has nothing to do with discrimination. This isn't about race. People from every race come to the US and learn to understand the American dialect of English.
  • Suggesting learning English is too hard for some is racist. Suggesting that learning English is easy for some races and difficult for other races is, itself, racist. Anybody can learn English. It is not too high of a burden to ask them to do so in order to live in the United States.
  • Choice exists to learn language; Official English not discrimination. Real forms of discrimination aim at the inherent characteristics of an individual that they cannot change (such as their skin color or national origin). But, language is different, as an individual can choose to learn English. If they feel disadvantaged because they are not able to read government documents, ballots, or defend themselves in court, it is fully their choice to change this by learning English.
  • Too many languages for right to govt services in own language. There are over three hundred languages spoken in the United States. And, there are roughly 15 million American citizens (about 5% of the total population of 300 million) who do not speak English. Giving all of those individuals, in all of those different languages, the right to demand government services in their own language is preposterous. If we give Spanish speaking people this right, we would naturally have to extend the right to all the other 300 some-odd languages and those that speak them. This would unreasonably burden government services, adding a huge layer of bureaucracy and costs. Even then, inevitably, somebody with some obscure language will find that their "right" to have services provided to them in their own language will not be adequately fulfilled at some government facility. This is a bad combination in public policy; a right that cannot be provided adequately that nevertheless adds billions of dollars in extra costs for US government and taxpayers.



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No

  • Some countries do very well with many official languages. Switzerland has four official languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh. All four languages have equal status and children are educated in the language spoken in the region where they live. And, Switzerland is a country that has very strong unity and economic functionality.[3]
  • Official English discriminates against non-English speakers "Language Rights Are Protected Under Civil Rights Law." MALDEF on OpposingViews.com: "Language is not only a barrier to communication, but also an identifying characteristic of an individual’s ethnicity and national origin. [...] Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, ancestry, national origin or ethnicity. Section 601 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination based "on the ground of race, color, or national origin," in "any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title VI of the Civil Rights Act provides the foundation for ensuring nondiscrimination in all federal programs and services, including those provided to language minorities."[See extended argument on OpposingViews.com]
  • Official English is driven by anti-immigrant and racist sentiments Individuals involved in the official english movement are very often driven by anti-immigrant feelings, or pure racism. For example, John Tanton, the founder of the main political lobbying organization in this movement called US English, had to resign in 1986 after making derogatory remarks about Hispanics.[4]
  • Official English offends idea of American diversity America is a very diverse country that has been culturally enriched by immigrants from around the world. As a sign of respect to all these people it should not limit its citizens by introducing English as the only official language.


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English under threat? Is English under threat right now?

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Pro


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Con

  • English is not under threat nor needing protection Linguistic Society of America Resolution on English Only. July 1, 1987: "The English language in America is not threatened. All evidence suggests that recent immigrants are overwhelmingly aware of the social and economic advantages of becoming proficient in English, and require no additional compulsion to learn the language." Indeed, roughly 94% of Americans already speak English. This is a very high number, compared to other countries that have much greater linguistic stratification. It is not necessary, therefore, to change anything and make any greater effort at compelling Americans to learn English.
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Learning English: Does official English encourage learning language?

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Pro

  • 15m Americans don't speak English; more incentives needed. While many say that there is plenty motivation for immigrants to learn English, then why is 5% of the population, 15 million, or 5 in every 100 individuals unable to speak English? Clearly, there is room for improvement, and Official English is a good way to give an extra boost of encouragement to those in the gap.


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Con

  • Incentive to learn English exists w/o making it official language "The Myth of English as a Threatened Language." MALDEF on OpposingViews.com: "Latino immigrants are learning English, and doing so as quickly as or more quickly than previous generations of immigrants. As is typical of immigrant populations in the United States, by the third generation most Latinos tend to speak only English. Latino immigrants, then, do not need official English or English-only legislation to coerce them into learning English; that desire and determination already runs deep in the Latino community."
  • Immigrants want to learn English, but not enough classes "The Myth of English as a Threatened Language." MALDEF on OpposingViews.com: "The problem is not that immigrants are unwilling to learn English, but that there are not enough available educational resources for them. Today, many thousands of immigrants throughout the country are on the waiting lists for adult English classes."


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In education: Are English-only education policies effective?

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Pro

  • Bilingual initiatives costly; official English cheaper Bilingual initiatives can be very costly. They require hiring bilingual teachers, creating bilingual curriculum, creating tests in the foreign language, and buying different text books for these students. All of this adds expenses to schools who's budgets are already stretched thin.
  • English only in schools is effective language immersion. Immersion is a very effective strategy used in university programs, where college students are sent abroad and immersed in a language. Sometime, there is a requirement in these programs that students speak no English at all, and only the new language being learned. This is because immersion forces an individual, under high pressure, to learn the language quickly. English-only policies in schools follow this logic, teak kids English more quickly, and subsequently benefit them in their lives in the long-run.
  • Parents responsible for child's language acquisition/retention. Too much responsibility is often placed on schools to accommodate children. It is the parent's responsibility to help their child learn English or to make sure that they are retaining their native language at the same time as they learn English.


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Con

  • English-only in schools disadvantages non-native students In the 1974 case of Lau v. Nichols, the Supreme Court ruled that: "there is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education" (U.S. Supreme Court, 414 U.S. 563)[5]
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Practicality: Is official English practical?

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Pro

  • Impractical/expensive for govt to cater to multiple languages USEnglish.org. "Why is Official English necessary?": "Official English is common sense government. The designation of official English will eliminate the needless duplication of government services in multiple languages. It is not the responsibility of the government to provide services in the 322 different languages spoken in the United States. It is the responsibility of each individual to either learn English or to find a friend or family member to translate. The money formerly spent on multi-lingual services can instead provide immigrants with the assistance they really need-classes to teach them English."
  • Official English only limits federal govt, not others. Official English only limit requirements on the federal government documents to provide documents in services in languages other than English. It would not limit states, private businesses, communities, nor families.
  • Official English should be non-controversial. Eric Crafton - Nashville, Tenn., City Council - said in 2009: “English is under attack. The fact that making English our Government’s official language is even controversial should give us all pause."[6]
  • English is the most widely spoken language in the US. An overwhelming majority of US citizens already speaks English. For a major part of them English is a mother tongue. So, if there is to be one official language, English is clearly the most natural and logical choice. In addition, 30 U.S. states have already enacted laws making English their official language.
  • English has been used officially in US historically. The U.S. was founded by 13 British colonies. Both the US declaration of independence and US constitution are written in English. This itself make English the "de facto" official language of the United States. Why not make it the de jure official language?
  • English is the official language of over 30 us States. English is the official language of over 30 US states, a vast majority of %60. There have been no problems in adopting the provision in these states. Therefore, there should be no problems adopting it nationally.


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Con

  • US language policy is working fine; why create official language? The US and 20 of its constituent states (Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia) seem to have muddled along so far without any official national language. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum, in an essay entitled "Here come the linguistic fascists," points out that English is far from under threat in the United States, and argues that "making English the official language of the United States of America is about as urgently called for as making hotdogs the official food at baseball games."[7]
  • Language policies should be state-by-state, not national. There should be no official national language. One of the great strengths of the United States is that we can experiment on a state-by-state basis. When one state does things one way, and a neighboring state does things the other way, it is much easier to see the advantages of doing things one way or the other. This allows each state to choose one way or the other based on objective evidence and results. And, indeed, 30 states have already opted to have English as their state's official language. While, some may disagree on this side with the decision of any one state to adopt official English, the state-by-state approach may still be considered superior to a national English policy.
  • Official language probably won't change any policies. If English is made into the official language, but you don't actually change anything -- kind of like English is the official langauge of California, but the California Department of Motor Vehicles still prints the Driver License Handbook in at least 8 other languages -- then it's a nice symbolic guesture, but why bother?
  • Official English is just symbolic. Official English is just symbolic. It probably will not change any policies, it's just meant to send a message. But, this message is highly charged and controversial, as it is often interpreted as exclusionary, anti-immigrant, and even racist. Such consequences usually make a symbolic gesture such as Official English a bad idea.


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Public interest: Is official English in public interest (safety, etc)?

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Pro

  • Official language key to using govt services. If an immigrant does not know English, and an accident happens, they need to know how to communicate with a 9/11 agent, or police that arrive on the seen. It is unreasonable to rely on Spanish speaking infrastructure in the event of emergency, when rapid communication is needed.
  • Official English has exceptions for safety, health, etc. Official English does not constrain the government to always, in every situation, providing only English in its services. It, rather, makes a general rule that the government is not obligated to provide these services, but allows for the government to provide services in other languages when there is an exceptional, compelling state interest to do so, particularly for health, safety, tourism, economic development, and for libraries' foreign language materials.[8]
  • Non-English driver will not be able to read road-signs. If a driver's license can be issued through a non-English test, then the driver with that license may be unable to read road-signs, which can be a public safety hazard.


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Con

  • English-only laws can be a public safety/health hazard "English-Only Negatively Impacts the Government’s Response to Disasters." MALDEF on OpposingViews.com: "Examples of situations in which government officials must communicate efficiently and effectively to ensure the safety of the general populace abound. In the event of a natural disaster or terrorist threat, for example, federal emergency workers must be able to convey important information and instructions to as broad an audience as possible, a need that may require the use of languages other than English. A national English-only policy would impede the government’s ability to convey warnings or post danger or hazard signs in languages other than English. Such a policy would prevent local law enforcement from effectively investigating crimes, communicating with crime victims or witnesses, or providing critically needed services to victims of domestic violence and abuse?
  • Official English limits diplomatic benefits of linguistic diversity. If official English has the effect of diminishing linguistic diversity in a country, this will be bad for international diplomatic efforts abroad and at home that require this diversity.


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Other countries: Do other countries have official languages?

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Pro

  • Most countries have an official language. According to some sources, over 85 percent of the world’s countries have at least one official language.[9] Therefore, the United States is at odds with international norms in not having an official language. An official language is not out the ordinary or controversial, and this is evidenced by the international adoption of this norm. The United States, therefore, should take comfort in this fact if/when it decides to make English its official language.


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Con

  • No official language makes US unique internationally. Many people today believe that the US is the "#1" country in the world in several important ways; perhaps being *different* from countries with an official national language is one of our advantages. It certainly fits with America's inclusive history and culture. The United States has never been known to follow. Why should it do so by adopting English as its official language?


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Public opinion: Does public opinion support official English?

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Yes

  • Public opinion favors English as the official language "Americans Overwhelmingly Support Official English" ProEnglish on OpposingViews.com: "National polls and state referendums show conclusively that Americans, including Hispanic Americans, overwhelmingly support Official English. 87% of American voters support making English the official language of the United States. 77% of Hispanic voters think English should be the official language of government operations. 82% of Americans support legislation that would require the federal government to conduct business solely in English. 72% of American young people ages 18-24, including majorities of Hispanic and Asian-American young people, favor making English the official language. 74% of American voters agree that election ballots should be exclusively in English. Nearly two thirds of all Hispanic adults --65 percent -- favor making English the nation's official language." [See extended argument on OpposingViews.com]


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No

  • Majority should not oppress minority non-English speakers. The main argument against Official English is that it is discrimination against non-English speakers, violating their right to certain forms of protection under the law. Such minority rights are important to protect, and equally so against the opinions of the majority of Americans who may believe it is OK to violate these rights. Following majority opinion in advancing Official English would subscribe to a tyranny of the majority philosophy.
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Pro/Con sources

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Yes


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No


See also

External links and resources


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