The United States and the Battle for an Official Language

The United States and the Battle for an Official Language

Does the United States have an official language? In short, no, but in reality it is a much more complicated issue that can be difficult to understand. The original constitution of the United States did not enshrine any particular language as the official language, and there continues to be no federal legislation declaring any one language as the “official” language of the United States. Despite this, all legislation, regulations, treaties, ballots, and other federal communications are produced in the English language. Despite this, many states also produce official documents and communications in other languages, such as Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean, and other indigenous languages. This is even true when that state has passed a local law declaring English to be their only official language, because government officials understand the importance of using translation services to communicate with all of their constituents. In this article, we will discuss the question of an official language in the United States today and outline the following topics:

  • De facto official languages
  • Which states have declared an official language
  • Could Spanish be an official language
  • The “English Only Movement” to declare English as the sole official language

De Facto Official Languages

English is the de facto official language of the United States at a federal level, as well as at state levels. This means that all legislation, ballots, regulations and other government communications are produced in English. Some states also produce materials in other languages in addition to English for government communications. These states include Louisiana, which uses both English and French; Pennsylvania, which uses both English and German; New Mexico, which uses English and Spanish; and California, which has many Spanish language speakers in particular, and produces materials in at least nine languages.

States with Official Languages

31 of 50 states have adopted legislation declaring official languages; all 31 of those states recognize English as their official language, but some also recognize other languages. Hawaii has adopted both English and Hawaiian as their official languages while Alaska recognizes numerous indigenous languages as official alongside English. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico recognizes both English and Spanish as official languages, but most Puerto Ricans only speak Spanish.

In some states that have declared English as an official language, there is no further regulation for using English in official capacities. In these states, such as Illinois and Missouri, the designation is largely ceremonial and does not impose any limitations on translating communications and texts. In fact, in these states ballots and other official documents are often produced in many languages. In other states, such as Tennessee, the state requires that all communication produced by the government be only in English. In some states, the legislation is even stricter; for example, the constitution of California states that the government “take all steps necessary to insure that the role of English as the common language … is preserved and enhanced,” but this legislation does not seem to be particularly enforced.

 Could Spanish be an official language?

It is ironic that California, a state with a Spanish language name and where the Spanish language is so widespread, going as far back as the first settlements in the 17th and 18th century, would have a law preserving the English language. In fact, until 1870 the constitution of California recognized both the English language and the Spanish language as official.

California is not the only jurisdiction in the United States to declare Spanish as an official language. As previously mentioned, it is also one of the official languages of The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The majority of the population of Puerto Rico are Spanish language speakers, and as such, it is important that they conduct government business in that language. As the number of Spanish language speakers in the United States increases, it will become even more important for governments to provide services and documentation in the Spanish language, however not all Americans support that.

English as an Official Language Movement

In recent years, many Americans and lawmakers have pushed to create legislation declaring English as the official language of the United States, perhaps as a reaction to the increasing importance of the Spanish language across the country. The modern day “English-Only Movement” originated in the early 1980s when Virginia declared English as its official language. Around this time, a group called “U.S. English” started to lobby for English to be the official language of all states and the country as a whole at the federal level. In 1996, after extensive lobbying by the English-Only Movement, a bill proposing to make English the official language passed in the House of Representatives, but the Senate never signed it into law, leaving the country still without an official language.

More recently, in Nashville in 2009, voters rejected a law that would have prohibited the government from using languages other than English. While in 2012, ex-Senator Rick Santorum publicly stated that he believed Puerto Rico, a predominantly Spanish speaking territory, should adopt English as its primary language if it wants to gain statehood. Santorum was widely criticized for ignoring the importance of the Spanish language in the lives of Puerto Ricans. Today, five states are considering establishing English as their one and only official language, these states are Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

There is widespread support for English as an official language, according to a 2010 poll, 87% of Americans support making English an official language. However, many people are critical of the movement. Critics argue that it is not a unifying endeavor, and it promotes xenophobia. The ACLU believes that efforts to make English the only official language, and to limit the availability of government communication in other languages is a violation of the first amendment rights of free speech and the ability to communicate with the government.

 English is the most common language spoken in the United States, so governments consistently produce communications, legislation and regulations in English. However, today there are more than 35 million native Spanish language speakers in the United States, with millions more speaking Spanish as a second language or currently studying the Spanish language. State and federal governments are aware of the importance of this demographic so they translate all of their official documents, ballots and other communications into the Spanish language. Governments understand the importance of using translation and copy-editing services such as Spanish with Style to ensure that the quality of the translated text they are distributing to their constituents is impeccable.