My quest to the official language of the U.S.

I just found out a few weeks ago that English isn’t the official language of the U.S. Someone told me this and at first I didn’t believe it. Of course I googled it the minute I could. She was right…

I don’t know why I assumed English was the official language.

Maybe because all the traffic signs are in English? Because I get all my mail in English? Because everyone talks to me in English?

I now know that the U.S. has no official language. I still have no clue why, so I started to investigate that.

When I saw this video (she seems to be a 'comedian') I thought about everything I did research on earlier and decided to write this blog.

First a little bit of background on all of this.

In 1780 John Adams tried to establish an official Language Academy  to set standards for English. I even found excerpts from letters written by John Adams, where he writes about the Dutch:

The Dutch language is understood by nobody but themselves; the consequence of which has been, that this nation is not known with as profound learning and ingenuity as any people in Europe possess. They have been overlooked because they were situated among others more numerous and powerful than they.

Of course Dutch (and Fries in Friesland) is still the official language of the Netherlands. However, in the Netherlands 90% of the Dutch people is able to speak English. They have to, since Dutch is a language that is spoken very little all over the world. There are 23 million people speaking Dutch in the world. So John Adams was right, if the Dutch would have just spoken Dutch, they wouldn't have come this far in many ways in the world.

The Continental Congress rejected the Language Academy of John Adams, because they thought it would be a threat to individual liberties. The Founders (J. Adams, B. Franklin, A. Hamilton, J. Jay, T. Jefferson, J. Madison and G. Washington) just fought a war (1775, started with the Battle of Bunker Hill and ended July 4, 1776 also known as Independence Day) against the English and were reluctant to declare English as their official language.

On January 30 of 1795, the U.S. House of Representatives defeated a bill to print 3,000 sets of the federal laws in German. Some people think that German almost became the official language of the U.S., but that seems to be a myth.

In 1849 (after the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo) without opposition, delegates to the constitutional convention approved an important recognition of Spanish language rights in California:

"All laws, decrees, regulations, and provisions emanating from any of the three supreme powers of this State, which from their nature require publication, shall be published in English and Spanish."

In 1878 the delegates eliminated the 1849 guarantee for Spanish-language publications, and limited all official proceedings to English (until 1966), this made California one of the first 'English only' states.

In Pennsylvania (1897) they said you had to be able to speak English in its coal fields, which excluded the Italians and slaves. During World War I there were bans on public use of the German language – while being outside, in schools,in church and while calling someone.

It was not necessary to speak English to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen until 1906. Before World War I bilingual education was common in areas where non-English speaking people had a political influence. Czech, Norwegian, Welsh, Spanish, French and  German were used for state laws, constitutions and legislative procedures in the 19th century.

In 1919 Theodore Roosevelt said this about immigration:

'In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...

There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.'

In 1923 Illinois declared 'American' as their official language. In 1969 it was rehabilitated to English.

In 1981 a constitutional English Language Amendment was introduced by senator S. I. Hayakawa.


How about right now?

At this moment there are 31 States that have English as their official language.

Robert King, Ph.D., wrote the following in his article 'Should English be the Law?'

I said earlier that language is a convenient surrogate for other national problems. Official English obviously has a lot to do with concern about immigration, perhaps especially Hispanic immigration. America may be threatened by immigration; I don't know. But America is not threatened by language.

The usual arguments made by academics against Official English are commonsensical. Who needs a law when, according to the 1990 census, 94 percent of American residents speak English anyway?

Not many of today's immigrants will see their first language survive into the second generation. This is in fact the common lament of first-generation immigrants:their children are not learning their language and are losing the culture of their parents.

We are not even close to the danger point. I suggest that we relax and luxuriate in our linguistic richness and our traditional tolerance of language differences. Language does not threaten American unity. Benign neglect is a good policy for any country when it comes to language, and it's a good policy for America. - April 1997

There are different 'movements' when it comes to making English the official language of the U.S.

Pro are:

Against are:

'The English Language Amendment is the wrong remedy for whatever of America's social ills it tries to solve -- for five reasons. It ignores our country's civil rights tradition; it fails to promote the integration of language minority citizens into the American mainstream; it neglects the need for American merchants to communicate with foreign markets; it restricts the government's ability to reach all citizens; and it raises Constitutional concerns.'

This article from the Center for Public Education shows the changing demographics of the United States and their schools. In the future it will be much more important  for school leaders, policymakers, parents, and the community at large to know what is happening on a demographic level in the U.S.

Here you can see how many candidates have submitted their pledge in support of Official English and how many have not submitted their pledge, or have taken a stance against 'Official English'.

As you can see here, on March 9 2015, people are still trying to set English as the official language of the U.S. via 'the English Language Unity Act of 2015'.

As an 'alien' in the U.S. I do feel that people should be able to speak English in the U.S, but not because of the reasons the pro-English people mention. I just think I couldn't be as involved in the American society, without speaking English.

As a Dutch person it is quite logical that I should be able to speak other languages than Dutch, since Dutch is very little spoken in the world. 94% of the people living in the U.S. (1997) are able to speak English, but that doesn't mean they can't speak other languages too. At our home we speak Dutch, but we do not know if we will ever move back to the Netherlands or not. We speak Dutch because it is our mother tongue and it's still easier to express ourselves in Dutch (certainly for my husband and me). Our children, especially the youngest, speaks better English than Dutch. Also being bilingual has a lot of advantages for all of us.


At this map, you can see which languages are spoken in the U.S. and where (2011):

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