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Why the official language debate rages on

What impact does not having an official language have on a nation and its people?

When we think about countries around the world, many of us just assume that each country has one – or more than one – official language. A country’s official language or languages are nationally recognized and are generally used in an official capacity when conducting any and all governmental matters. These languages are also likely used in domestic commerce as well as in the educational system of the land.

In Canada for instance, there are two official languages – English and French. The Canadian federal government is required to be fully bilingual, offering all services to its citizens, in both languages. By doing so, the government claims to be able to effectively communicate with 98 percent of its residents. In some countries, there is only one official language. In others, there are several, and in a few, there is no official language at all – and this is what interests us. Last time, we wrote about the repercussions of establishing an official language, and explored some European countries. But what impact does not having an official language have on a nation and its people? This time around, we’ll explore the United States.

“[W]hy should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together, establish their Language and Manners to the exclusion of ours?”

As far back as 1750s, before the United States was even established as an independent nation, there have been heated debates about this very issue. Benjamin Franklin’s infamous quote above however, seems more about racism and an intolerance for diversity than it does about the preservation of the English language. He went on to say:

Why would Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?  The papers of Benjamin Franklin

But this debate has never faded away. In fact, well beyond Benjamin Franklin’s days and right up to modern times the debate about the establishment of English as the official language of the United States has raged on.

Arguments against an official language

  1. Violations of the US Constitution’s protection of due process (especially in courts where no translation service would be offered)

  2. Violations of rights and freedoms (ex. where English-only ballots would replace previously-available bilingual ballots, access to written materials that affect community, state, federal jurisdictions, government agency assistance, education for ELLs, and so much more)

  3. Compromise of an individual’s health and wellbeing in emergency situations where time is of the essence and interpretation services are critical

  4. Significant limitations to an individual’s basic rights and freedoms – voting, and access to written materials can be negatively impacted

Arguments in favor of an official language

  1. Will likely have exceptions for public safety and health needs

  2. Save money on translation services at the local, state, and federal government levels (single-language documents)

  3. Promote the learning of English by non-English speakers

  4. Bind us all as one people (melting pot mentality)

English fluency for immigrant families jumps 65 percent between first and second generations

Those opposed argue that these continuous debates are really about xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment masked in a guise of national identity and pride. Opponents further contend that these efforts are nonsensical since the vast majority of immigrants who speak a language other than English (LOTE) tend to “linguistically assimilate within a single generation.” In fact, a 2007 Pew study found that English fluency jumps 65 percent between first and second generations. Despite these arguments, the debate carries on.

Over the years, these heated debates have led to several states declaring English as their state’s official language. There are now 31 states that have declared English as their official language. Interestingly, the number of foreign-born residents in these states is less than 8 percent of the state’s population, and just over 10 percent of the population in states with no official language:

The American official language debate -States with no official language

The American official language debate -States with English as the official language

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Hawaii

There is one state however, that stands out above the rest as having not one but two official languages. Hawaii’s official languages are English and Hawaiian.

Is the official language debate making a mountain out of a molehill?

When we consider that the LEP population within the United States only accounts for 8 to 9 percent of the entire American population, those passionate about establishing English as the official language may be making a mountain out of a molehill. And although the US population as a whole has continued to grow over the past 7 years, these ratios have remained relatively the same:

The American official language debate -States with Eng- LEP population (US Census, 2011)

Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!

It's the law

It is also important to point out that states who, regardless of their English-only laws, receive any federal assistance or funds, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act supersedes any other state-mandated laws or practices: “…Persons with limited English proficiency must be afforded a meaningful opportunity to participate in programs that receive Federal funds. Policies and practices may not deny or have the effect of denying persons with limited English proficiency equal access to Federally-funded programs for which such persons qualify.” US Dept of Health & Human Services

Is it costlier to allow or deny multilingual services?

Education

It is almost universally accepted that curiosity accompanied by a strong desire to learn are essential for personal success. When children feel good about themselves, when they have a strong sense of self, they are more likely to be engaged in the learning process. The more engaged children are, the more they will strive to learn – and the more they learn, the more they will undoubtedly achieve.

One of the main arguments for English-only classrooms rests on the belief that English-speaking children will lag behind if forced to study a second language, and that those students who haven’t yet mastered language will continue to be limited in their ability to speak English if they take bilingual classes. However, studies have shown that dual-language instruction leads to stronger literature skills, higher graduation rates, and a narrowing of achievement gaps.

The studies have also found that students who only speak English but who have enrolled in dual-language programs earn higher math and reading scores. Conversely, when children are taught in an environment that lacks cross-cultural understanding, there is a greater risk of disconnect, leading to higher dropout rates which adds more economic burden on the community.

Economy

Another argument to establish English as the official language of the land, lies with the economy. Some believe that the United States will save billions of dollars in translation and interpreting services, not to mention the billions of dollars that support dual-language education. And although English still remains the lingua franca for business and academia, and still holds the number one spot as the most commonly-used language on the Internet, it doesn’t dominate quite as it did in the past.

The Chinese language (including all Sino-Tibetan languages) is the most widely-spoken language in the world with nearly 1 billion speakers worldwide. Mandarin has become the second most popular language among Internet users, and in 2016, China was leading the world in ecommerce with sales exceeding USD 7 billion.

With over 400 million native speakers, Spanish has now become the second most commonly-spoken language on the world stage. Nearly 40 million US residents call Spanish their first language, and since the United States holds the world’s largest economy, those interested in doing business with the United States would be foolish not to include the Spanish language in their localization efforts. English ranks as the third most commonly-spoken language with nearly 340 million native speakers around the world, in over 90 countries. Arabic, spoken by almost 300 million people worldwide (and in several Middle Eastern and African countries experiencing rapidly-growing economies), is the fourth most commonly-spoken language in the world, followed by German, Portuguese, Russian, French, Japanese, and Hindi.

The American official language debate- Key languages in world trade

Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!

Embracing multilingualism seems to be the wisest choice

Americans no longer live in the closed-off world of Benjamin Franklin but have become major players on the international stage. In order to continue to be an economic powerhouse and compete internationally, embracing multilingualism seems the wisest choice.

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