Constitutional Topic: Official Language
The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ pages. This Topic Page concerns an Official Language for the United States. No official language is mentioned or contemplated in the Constitution.
Many people are surprised to learn that the United States has no official language. As one of the major centers of commerce and trade, and a major English-speaking country, many assume that English is the country's official language. But despite efforts over the years, the United States has no official language.
Almost every session of Congress, an amendment to the Constitution is proposed in Congress to adopt English as the official language of the United States. Other efforts have attempted to take the easier route of changing the U.S. Code to make English the official language. As of this writing, the efforts have not been successful.
Here is the text of a proposed amendment. This particular bill was introduced in the House of Representatives as H.J. Res. 16 (107th Congress):
The English language shall be the official language of the United States. As the official language, the English language shall be used for all public acts including every order, resolution, vote, or election, and for all records and judicial proceedings of the Government of the United States and the governments of the several States.
Also introduced in the 107th Congress was this text from H.R. 3333:
The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the United States of America. Unless specifically stated in applicable law, no person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English. If exceptions are made, that does not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or any language other than English.
Often these bills are in response to legislation recognizing non-English languages in public discourse of some kind. H.R. 3333, for example, also explicitly repealed the Bilingual Education Act which authorized funds to educate American students if their native tongue as well as to provide specialized training in the learning of English.
The most recent efforts to promote English as the official language has come as more and more immigration from Spanish-speaking and Eastern nations (such as China and Vietnam) has brought an influx of non-English speakers to the United States. According to the 1990 Census, 13.8 percent of U.S. residents speak some non-English language at home. 2.9 percent, or 6.7 million people, did not speak English at all, or could not speak it well.
The ACLU, which is part of a group opposed to establishing a national official language, has published a paper detailing reasons that such a move should be opposed. It starts by mentioning an effort by John Adams, in 1780, to establish an official academy devoted to English, a move which was rejected at the time as undemocratic. The ACLU notes past efforts at English-only laws that abridged the rights of non-English speakers or which generally made life difficult for large non-English speaking populations. One example cited in Dade County, Florida, where, after a 1980 English-only law was passed, Spanish signs on public transportation were removed.
The ACLU believes that English-only laws can violate the U.S. Constitution's protection of due process (especially in courts where no translation service would be offered) and equal protection (for example, where English-only ballots would be used where bilingual ones were available in the past).
English-only proponents like U.S. English counter that English-only laws generally have exceptions for public safety and health needs. They note that English-only laws help governments save money by allowing publication of official documents in a single language, saving on translation and printing costs, and that English-only laws promote the learning of English by non-English speakers. One example offered is that of Canada, with two official languages, English and French. The Canadian government itself has addressed this issue, noting that in 1996-7, only 260 million Canadian dollars were spent on bilingual services.
There has been at least one interesting contrast to the pro-English efforts. In 1923, Illinois officially declared that English would no longer be the official language of Illinois - but American would be. Many of Illinois' statutes refer to "the American language," (example: 225 ILCS 705/27.01) though the official language of the state is now English (5 ILCS 460/20).
According to U.S. English, the following states have existing official language laws on their books: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming. A small handful date back more than a few decades, such as Louisiana (1811) and Nebraska (1920), but most official language statutes were passed since the 1970's.
The following are websites concerning Official English in the United States:
- U.S. English
- English First
- An Immigrate Advocacy Group supports an English-only policy.
- The English Only Movement
- Official English and English Plus: An Update (1997)
- A Chronology of the Official English Movement
- Debunking a popular myth that German once nearly became the official language. This more complete text discusses the topic in detail.
The following are websites concerning the official languages of other countries: