Should English Be Our Official Language?

What language do you speak at work?  What language do you speak at home?  For millions of immigrants to the U.S., the answer changes as they move from public life to private life.  When we’re in the marketplace—as sellers or consumers—we probably conduct a lot of our business in English.

But at the end of the day, when second-language speakers want to kick off their shoes, they probably go back to their native language.  For most of us, our mother tongue means familiarity.  Home is where we are comfortable.  It’s where we express feelings, not discuss spreadsheets.  We talk about Tio Jorge’s birthday party, or chubby-cheeked children, or whether the baba ghanoush has too much lemon in it.

Now, there are some Americans who don’t like it when they hear Korean or Punjabi or Spanish being spoken in public.  Their typical response is, “This is America, speak American!”  Of course, this is very funny, because "American" isn’t a language.  What we speak here is called English.

Those same people have tried over the decades to have English named the official language of the United States.  They have tried passing a variety of laws to restrict what people speak in this country or what language services are available in this country.  Each group is called something a little different and claim they have slightly different goals.

  • English Only
  • U.S. English
  • Official English

The trouble is, many of these people are monolingual folks who don’t understand the difficulty of learning a second language.  And they want everyone to talk like them, without the understanding that speaking many languages is the natural way of doing business in the world.  We need to promote multilingualism, not discourage it!

Usually these English-only or official-English folks claim they want to unify the country under one language.  But how unifying is it to be told how you should communicate?  The fact is that living in the U.S. means needing to make some attempt at learning the English language to get along.  In other words, it’s a natural consequence of adaptation, but it doesn’t need to be a law.

It’s interesting that these same people don’t want the government to tell them what to do in other areas of their life; they call it intrusion or Big Government.  Sometimes they think it will save money because they can get rid of interpreters in courtrooms or hospitals.

Let me ask you something.  If you were traveling to another country and had to have surgery or go on trial, wouldn’t you want to understand—in your own language—what was happening to you?  In an advanced country, that is my expectation of how the system should work.

Of course, the longer that immigrants live in the U.S., the better their English will usually become.  Eventually, they may not need so much help.  But what about the 75-year-old grandmother who moves to the U.S. from India because her granddaughter just opened a business?  To be a good citizen and vote responsibly on ballot proposals like senior housing or school millages, they may need some help...unless you believe in a country that requires literacy tests for voting rights.

And finally, do you remember taking French or Spanish in high school?  Was it hard for you?  Maybe you quit after two years.  Well, guess what?  Just because you’re not good at language learning means that you’re a bad citizen.  It just means you stink at language learning.  I know you have lots of other skills you bring to your neighborhood or your workplace.

For Americans who grumble about “those people” speaking funny languages instead of English, I say let them alone.  If younger immigrants want to get ahead, let’s let the marketplace determine how they adapt to American English and culture, and not our xenophobia.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.