It True: English Is Not The Official Language of the United States (And That’s Fine!)

Map of U.S. with hello word bubbles in different languages main

A government establishes an official language to represent a nation as it does with a flag or anthem. The United States does not have an official language. English is most commonly spoken and used in official acts and proceedings. Many other languages also are used. Various attempts to mandate English, including for African slaves and Native Americans in boarding schools, were anti-democratic acts of oppression. A bilingual policy is more suitable in our interconnected world.  

What Is An Official Language?

As English is the common and unifying language of the State of Oklahoma, all official actions of the state shall be conducted in the English language, except as required by federal law. 

Oklahoma Constitution

An official language is provided with special legal status. 

It is a language used for government business. Students are taught it in school. An official language gains unique importance and cultural cachet. The constitution declares its existence.

There can be more than one official language. For instance, the official languages of Canada are English and French. The United Nations established six official languages.

The United States (like Mexico) has none. 

Isn’t the United States’ Language English?

Many states have official languages. These state laws still have to follow federal requirements. For instance, if arrested, a person who does not understand English is guaranteed a translator in their language. Voting materials also are printed in multiple languages. 

A person who wants to become a U.S. citizen must prove that they are fluent in the English language.  However, the United States does not have an official language.  

“English” Seems To Be The Answer!

A language can be culturally dominant without being an official language. Likewise, we do not have an officially established religion. A majority of people still are Christian.  

English is often the only language used, even when this is impractical. For instance, the Supreme Court has several cases involving Puerto Rico, where most people speak Spanish. Nonetheless, the opinions and other materials related to these cases are written in English only. 

English is the language most spoken in the United States. Spanish is the language most spoken in Mexico. There is a good reason that schools in the United States usually teach lessons in English, and Mexicans learn in Spanish. However, neither country has an official language. 

New Country, No Official Language 

One thing the U.S. and Mexico have in common is the diversity of their people.

The new nation had people from many places, including England, France, Holland, and Germany. They spoke a range of languages. English stood out. However, the first language of many people was not English. No problem. There was no official language. Everyone was welcome. 

In 1780, John Adams argued that “fixing and improving their proper languages” was a crucial task for the new government. It was hard even to find a good English language dictionary! He supported an official “public standard,” supported by the government.   

Congress found this proposal an “undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty.”  

Myth Busting: There has long been a belief that German was almost the national language of the United States. German speakers did request that Congress print its laws in their native tongue. Congress did not do so. There was no attempt to make German the official language. 

Congress Is Proven Correct 

Our history has repeated instances that proved Congress correct. 

Slave owners denied slaves the right to speak in their native African tongues. Slave owners rightly believed that this provided a means for slaves to have power. 

Language also was used to control Native Americans. For instance, the United States established boarding schools to teach Native Americans the ways of white people. Native American culture, including their languages, was suppressed.  

The United States also passed many nativist laws as a result of anti-German sentiment arising from World War I. For instance, Nebraska passed a law banning teaching in the German language. The Supreme Court in Meyer v. Nebraska declared this to be unconstitutional.

Any “English only” policy would harm a nation of immigrants. English-only education often harms students. People who have trouble speaking English have trouble obtaining fundamental resources, including things like health care and assistance to address domestic violence.  

The government has a lot of power. The people need to understand what they are saying. During the Middle Ages, Latin was the official language of the Catholic Church. Bibles were in Latin. The ordinary person did not understand the language. It was not very democratic. 

Bilingual Education 

Globalization” is a word used to describe the connection between the world’s economies, cultures, and populations. 

The ability to speak more than one language is a helpful tool. Bilingualism is the use of two or more languages in places of work and education. It is a common practice in the United States.

Bilingual education is controversial. Nonetheless, studies have shown that bilingual education works. Children are better able to learn languages when they are younger. 

Why not teach a second language in elementary school? It is more difficult to start learning a language in high school.

Multiculturalism vs. English Only 

A common metaphor for the American people is the “melting pot.” A bunch of different cultural traditions mixed to form the American people. We honor our diversity.

There was always pushback to this sentiment. The “true American” supposedly looks and speaks a certain way. Some people do not even realize Puerto Rico is part of the United States. 

English remains the dominant language in this country, even if it is not the official language. People who are not fluent will have problems. It is a good policy to promote policies that help people understand English. We can do this with a certain amount of finesse.  
The chauvinist belief that people who are not good English speakers are not “real Americans” is anti-American. It promotes racism and discrimination.  Congress was correct in 1780.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.