September 14, 2001


Official English: Beating a Dead Horse?

Domenico Maceri, PhD

Twenty-six American states have passed laws declaring English the official language. Now it's Congress's turn. Recently legislation was introduced to declare English the official language of the US. It would require that all official government business be conducted in English. Exceptions would be made in matters of public health, law enforcement, court translation, and tourism. If the bill is approved, the effects will be the same as those in the states that have approved similar legislation: nil.

The primary motivating factor in declaring English the official has to do with fear that the country's linguistic fabric and culture are coming apart.

The 2000 Census figures revealed that the foreign-born population increased to 30 million and also that 329 languages are spoken in the US. Some Americans are seriously concerned that this diversity of people and languages will cause a Balkanization of the country. Fear of a break up a la Canada, flash to the minds of some Americans. The solution? Pass English-only laws and force immigrants to learn English. Eliminate bilingual education as California and Arizona did and as some other states are considering.

Declaring English the official language has not solved the immigration nor the assimilation problems at the state level. Would the federal government do any better?

Definitely not. Yet, some people have no doubt that passing linguistic laws will maintain the unity and common culture of the country.

Mario Mujica, Chairman of the Washington-based U.S. English organization, believes immigrants need the encouragement of laws to learn the language of the country and thus achieve the American dream. I never met an immigrant in the US who needed laws to be reminded that English is necessary to succeed. American history tells us that immigrants do in fact learn English and assimilate. It's a gradual process.

The length of time required to learn English depends on a number of factors, including gender, age of arrival to the US, the educational background, and the immigrant's native language. It's easier for immigrants from the West to learn English particularly for those whose native language is Germanic or a Romance one. These languages have strong connections with English from the point of view of vocabulary,
grammar, and pronunciation. Asian immigrants find it more difficult because their languages share considerably less with English.

Education affects how fast and how well people will learn English. Those who possess a strong knowledge of their own language have a distinct advantage. The age of arrival affects learning English in surprising ways. The younger the immigrants, the better they will learn it although it may take longer to achieve the same level of fluency as adults. Children will gain a native pronunciation where adults will almost always retain a foreign accent. Yet, children will take longer to learn because they are not just learning words, they are also learning concepts and are at the same time learning about life. Men have a slight edge over women because they tend to work outside the home and interact with Americans more than their spouses.

As immigrants learn the language, they also assimilate into American culture although it's not an instantaneous process. It takes a generation or two, but by that time the home language and culture have almost disappeared as complete assimilation has occurred. Immigrants to the US gradually give up their home language because they see opportunities in the English language. Without English, one is condemned to menial labor and live an existence on the fringes of society. It's impossible to become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, etc., without learning English. No immigrant needs to be told that.

Immigrants need support and understanding as they are getting in Oakland, California. Recently, the Oakland City government passed an ordinance which will provide services in Chinese and Spanish to the growing foreign population. The services will increase foreign residents' participation in business and government and will eventually help them learn English and ultimately integrate.

If Congress makes English the official language of the US it will be a symbolic slap in the face to all immigrants. It will say that that the languages and cultures people bring in are not worth anything. It could very well be that George W. Bush may not sign the bill into law. As is well known, George W. Bush has been doing his weekly radio addresses in both English and Spanish. In his first radio address in both languages he stated that when "immigrants come to America legally, their culture and language" must be treated with respect and that the American story has been written and told in "many languages."

Bush has no intention to rescind former president's Bill Clinton executive order that directed federal agencies to make sure that non-English speakers have equal access to federal services. With so many problems facing the country such as education, energy, health care, and social security, one has to wonder why Congress is wasting its time with official English. If Congress cannot set appropriate priorities, it
should shut down and go on vacation. At least it would not be doing any harm.

Domenico Maceri (, PhD, UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.

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