american English global English

An official language for the United States?

After a brief visit to Philly and Boston, American English month continues with a guest blog from Stephen Handorf, editor and lexicographer in San Francisco. Stephen has a B.A. in linguistics and French from Cornell University and an M.A. in English as a Second Language from the University of Hawaii.


Last month, the Texas Republican Party added this statement to its 2010 party platform: “We support adoption of American English as the official language of Texas and of the United States.” Many people, both inside and outside the country, may be surprised that the United States has no official language.

Even without an official language, most U.S. government business happens in English. This makes sense in a country where 96% of the population speaks the English language at least “well.” Immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens also must show English language ability (with exceptions for older immigrants). At the same time, since 1975 federal laws have required ballots to be printed in foreign languages in places where large groups of those language speakers live.

Thirty individual states, however, have made English their official language or given it special status. So it’s not so strange that some Texans want to adopt “American English” as an official language. Even so, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000, 68% of Texans spoke only English, but 76% of the Texans who spoke another language said they could speak English “well” or “very well.” So a total of 92% of Texans were already fluent in English.

What exactly would it mean to make English the official language? The major groups in favor of this action state clearly that it doesn’t mean “English only.” They don’t want to ban the use or study of other languages. But they do want all government business and publications solely in English (with certain exceptions for health and safety, for example). They want to get rid of multilingual ballots. They say these changes will help hold the country together and encourage people to learn English.

But does making English official work? California has had English as its official language since 1986. Yet it has the highest number of inhabitants with limited English skills of any state. It may be just that California has more recent immigrants than other states. Many Americans feel that current immigrants are not learning English as quickly as past immigrants (their own ancestors). But some studies suggest that today’s immigrants are actually learning English faster.

Since the 1600s, immigrants have come to America from every country in the world, speaking their own languages. So it’s pretty amazing that 96% of us are fluent in English today, even without an official language. There are a lot of benefits to speaking the same language as virtually everyone else around you. And it’s not clear that making government more difficult to understand will get immigrants to learn English faster.

In the end, we all just want to communicate. The Texas Republican Party showed this just a few days after its members approved the new platform. The party released a video encouraging Hispanic voters to join the organization. The video is entirely in Spanish.

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Stephen Handorf


  • Making the workings of government available only in English won’t encourage most non-native speakers to learn English, it will simply make them feel more excluded than they already do. The only ones who will be encouraged are those who were already interested enough in language to want to be learning English anyway. Those who have no interest or don’t feel able to learn easily will simply withdraw. (And I say this as someone who has lived in a foreign country where government communications weren’t available in English – there was a distinct divide in interest and involvement levels between English speakers who were willing and able to learn the local tongue, and those who weren’t.)

    It’s hard enough getting people to participate in the political process and ensuring that they have the information they need to function well (and legally!) in a foreign country, without linguistically excluding them as well. Given the large Hispanic population in the US (particularly somewhere like Texas), it seems to me a thoroughly ridiculous idea.

  • I am a lover of languages and speak several. I believe the more languages one learns, the more versatile and open one’s approach to communication, awareness and tolerance can be. I also feel very strongly that the United States should adopt American English as its official language to ensure a nationwide ability of communication. The adoption of a national language does not at all, and should not, mean the elimination of the languages spoken in homes and communities enriched by muliticultural ancestry and heritage.

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