The first state to declare English its official language, understandably because of its radically polyglot population and as part of its campaign for statehood in the decade after the Louisiana Purchase, was Louisiana, which did so in 1812. Over the next 166 years, only four other states enacted similar legislation: Nebraska (1920), Illinois (1969), Massachusetts (1975), and Hawaii (1978). None of this legislation was the product or generator of a movement.
However, in the quarter century since Ronald Reagan became president, the English-only movement has become a virtual juggernaut that has eventuated in English-only legislation in 23 additional states.
The latest blow in the fight to make English the official or national language was struck by state representative Timothy Bearden (R-Villa Rica) when he pre-filed House Bill 21 to disallow Georgia state and local official forms from being printed in any language other than English. This came only days after the Cherokee County Commission enacted an ordinance making English its official language.
In the spring of 2006, in an immigration reform bill, the US Senate included, with roughly two-thirds of the senate supporting the measure, an affirmation of English as our national language. The distinction between national and official language is a legislative subtlety that rarely penetrates popular discussions. The designation of “national” language is only symbolic, but the designation of “official” language requires governmental business to be conducted exclusively in that language (with reasonable exceptions for health, safety, and so forth).
Unfortunately, the discussion of this issue has become enmeshed unfairly with the discussion of illegal immigration, and—in over-simplified (but not inaccurate) terms—the pro-English advocates tend to be vitriolic and jingoistic opponents of illegal immigration, while their antagonists tend to be spineless and indiscriminate welcomers of all and sundry (legality be damned). The pro-English advocates suspiciously protest too much their non-hatred of immigrants, and their antagonists go too far when they call any pro-English supporter “racist” (as now-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said when he opposed the senate’s 2006 legislation).
I have characterized both sides harshly because the discussions between them—as is characteristic of most contemporary political discourse—are carried out on the level of passions rather than of principles. This visceral cacophony drowns out any attempt to discern the objective merits of the case for English as official and national language.
Even if we want English to be declared our official language, “we do not want to live in an ‘English-only’ society,” as Mauro E. Mujica (Head of US English, Inc.) has said, “but we are equally opposed to the existence of an ‘English-optional’ society.”
The discussion of the primacy of English in our country needs a stiff dose of rational clarity. We need to abjure all ad hominem focus on motives in favor of clear-headed evaluation of substance. Therefore, we need to look at what is proposed without being blinded by why it is proposed. If we do not, our justifiably vaunted tradition of being a national melting pot will be replaced by a rigidly segmented platter of insular components.
We must distinguish between what I would call a multilingual (melting pot) society and a polylingual (segmented) society. In a multilingual society, citizens speak a variety of languages comfortably, while in a polylingual society—a veritable Babel—citizens each speak one language, and cross-language communication is rudimentary at best. So, in a multilingual society we can talk to each other because we speak a variety of languages, and in a polylingual society, we cannot talk to each other because we do not speak each other’s languages.
Let us not forget that most nations in the world have one or more declared official languages, while a few (including the United States and South Africa) do not, although some of these have a de facto national language. In addition, over 50 nations have English as a national language.
Contrary to many prevailing views, those nations that both legally adopt and assiduously cultivate an official national language are more likely to be multilingual—speaking a variety of languages and more likely to be hospitable to the acquisition of languages in general. A paradigmatic example would be France, whose language once held an international position comparable to that held by English now.
The lesson to be learned from France is that our drifting toward polylingual separatism will not be averted until we declare an official language. So, yes, we do need to declare English our official language. However, the declaration alone is not enough. We must governmentally support the preservation of our language through teaching it rigorously in our schools, something that is sorely lacking now. Paradoxically, our lack of multilingualism, even our hostility to the study of other languages, is rooted not in our fear of allowing immigrants to speak their own languages when they will, but in our failure “to govern, sustain, and defend” our own language.