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English as the official Language of the United States

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The United States has always been a multilingual country. When this country was founded many languages were spoken, including Dutch, French, German and English as well as many Native American languages. (ACLU 1997). There has been debate in this country about the English only question since its founding. Today many Americans, both private citizens and government officials, are in favor of making English the official language of the United States. Although there are many people in favor of official English legislation, there are just as many people opposed to the idea. Currently there are six proposed Constitutional Amendments in the House of Representatives. While some people consider it racist and discriminatory, others believe that a Constitutional Amendment should be passed that would declare English the official language of the United States.


In the beginning, our country was comprised mainly of people of English, Dutch, French and German descent as well as many Native American tribes; they all brought their native languages with them(ACLU 1997). In the 19th and 20th centuries there was a large influx of European, Asian and Mexican immigrants which caused many more languages to be spoken in this country besides English(US Census, 2000).

There has never been an official language for the United States, but the debate over this question goes back to the beginning of this country. In 1780 John Adams tried to start an Official Language Academy in order to set standards for English. His proposal was rejected by the Continental Congress as being undemocratic.

Then, in the 1800's Native American children were taken from their homes and families and forced to attend English boarding schools. English was the official language of these schools and the children were not allowed to speak their native language. Any students caught speaking a language other than English were severely punished.(Musser 2007).

In 1906, English proficiency became a requirement for citizenship, then, due to anti-German sentiments during World War I, many states passed language laws. For instance, the state of Nebraska passed a law that prohibited any language other than English in schools through the eighth grade. The Supreme Court later declared this law to be unconstitutional.(LectricLaw)

Ironically, Native American languages were used to encode military messages during WWI. Then there were the famous Navajo Code Talkers during WWII. These were Navajo Indians that served in the Marine Corp during WWII to transmit information on tactics and troop movements and other communications in their native Navajo tongue.(Department of the Navy-Naval Historical Center, 1997)

Support of English only Legislation

In 1981, Senator S. I. Hayakawa proposed the first Constitutional Amendment to make English the official language of the United States. He founded U.S. English, the country's largest citizen action group in favor of this legislation. This group believes that if English is declared the official language, it will motivate immigrants to learn English, by conducting all government business in English only. This includes all public documents, ceremonies and hearings. (US English.) "By not accommodating non-English speakers an incentive is given to these individuals to learn English and become more assimilated into society." (US English) This bill, H.J. Res 442 was proposed in the 97th Congress. H.J. Res 442 was sent to the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights but was never passed.

U.S. English as well as other pro English only groups are also in favor of removing bilingual education in schools as well as bilingual ballots for elections. They believe that the old "sink or swim" methods of teaching immigrant children will make them learn English more quickly because they are subjected to only English and not their native language. And as English proficiency is required to become a citizen and citizenship is required to vote, they believe that there should be no reason for bilingual election ballots.

Opposed to Official Language Legislation

At the time of the 2000 Census, approximately 45 million people in the United States spoke other languages beside English in their homes(US Census, 2000). Because of the number of immigrants with limited English proficiency, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. This act "prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance." (US Dept of Justice, Civil Rights Division, 2000.)

The American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU) is opposed to any legislation that relates to making English the official language. "Today, as in the past, English only laws in the US are founded on false stereotypes of immigrant groups. Such laws do not simply disparage the immigrant's native languages but assault the rights of the people who speak the languages." (ACLU Briefing Paper Number 6.)

There are people, including many educators, who believe that teaching limited



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