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December 28, 2005

When Nations Assign an "Official" Language

"They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps." - William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost

Much has been written lately between myself and Patricia over on ESL-School regarding the French Academy and how the English language lacks such stringent word-policing. However, how does all this fit into a country that does NOT have an official language or languages? I am, naturally, referring to the U.S.

The topic for this entry comes, ironically, from a "junk" comment to this blog found when I was recently going through my "approve" process for remarks. This blog is no exception to the spamming techniques used by many to get an unrelated gambling or pornography link posted on the comments page of an unmoderated personal blog.

One technique spammers use is to "ctrl-A," ctrl-C," "ctrl-V" large blocks of existing text into a comment field, enter a phony e-mail address (but a REAL website addy of course) and click send. I get tons of these but this one sparked my interest enough to actually let it slide (in highly excerpted form, naturally). The excerpt [found here] is supposedly an article by Imran Mureed - a Pakistani English teacher - and was submitted by a "Babu Khan." (Imran / Babu, I'm not accusing you of this necessarily, but if you are reading this, please clarify your identity since I am quoting you)

In the remark, unless I've misunderstood, Imran or Babu seems to be emphasizing the argument to make English its one, legal national language:

. . . The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is starting to label it workplace "discrimination" for employees to be required to speak English on the job and to customers. Nobody has yet calculated the horrendous litigation costs this will impose on small businesses . . .

In reality, the crux of the thing is remarkably familiar to an article from the Phyllis Schlafly Report entitled "The Importance of the English Language"[found here].

The argument is one that has been raging for some time now. That is, should the United States move to make English its official language or not? Some of the state legislatures, like Alabama's for example, already have.

As an English teacher, I should have a vested interest in the propagation of a language I have spent years trying to master and make a career in teaching. As an American and a Global Citizen (I speak for myself, dear friends!) I tend to take a different view. As an American citizen of Native American heritage I cannot help but ask "which language should rightfully speak for this nation?" According to Native-languages.org, for example, there are at least "800 indigenous languages of the Western Hemisphere."

Presently, I'm advocating neither the induction of one of these numerous "Native" languages nor English as the "official" language of the United States. My questions for you dear blog readers are, 1. Considering its history, does the United States "need" an official language (ought or ought not there be one?) and 2. If the majority feel that this is something "necessary" for the solidification/continuation of the American "culture," "way" - or whatever you choose to call it - then which language should it be? Why should so many automatically presume that it should be English? As for the European argument, Italian, Dutch, French and Spanish were all spoken here in before English was. I understand that even Scandinavian tongues might have been spoken in "Vinland," modern day East Canada, before English was. With that in mind, the present "dominance" of English usage in the United States might someday soon be replaced by the "majority" with the Spanish language. Consider the following easy-to-find information on the world wide web:

Wikipedia [for what it's worth] claims that the "United States is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world." Gerald Erichson - from About.com - reports that "Spanish and English are in a virtual dead heat to be the second most spoken language in the world. As of 1999, Spanish had 332 million speakers, while English had 322 million." In an article from October 2003, Erichson wrote, "A new analysis of information gathered during the 2000 U.S. Census shows that nearly one out of five Americans speak a language other than English at home [47 million] — and the vast majority of them speak Spanish."

In a 1991 publication (dated, I realize) found on ERIC, Sinta Santiestevan says that "due to immigration and natural increase, the number of U.S. Spanish speakers will continue to grow."

Lastly, I leave you with a blockquote from Dr. Max J. Castro from the University of Miami:

For now, population trends, especially in certain areas of the country, point to a long life for Spanish. "In California, Latinos are growing twice as fast as whites," wrote Gene García of the University of California at Berkeley. "The state predicts that the school population will be majority Latino by 2008. This population remains mostly first-generation immigrant...therefore, young children are likely to learn Spanish or become bilingual...The best predictor of a vitality of a language is whether that language is spoken by young children."

But, don't take my word for it; if you'd like to read the paper in context, please click here.

Again, I'm certainly, not advocating the implementation of Spanish as the "national" language of the United States - my position is that we should just leave that particular issue alone - but my question is, as stated before, if so many people ACTUALLY feel it is so important (or economical, as suggested by Imran/Babu?) to introduce an official langauge in a "free" society what language should it be? Should it be the language(s) of the original inhabitants or the language of the population majority? If your position is to support the language of the "majority" of voters (remember, English wasn't ALWAYS the dominant tongue in North America), then do you feel that the predictions about the soon-to-be-dominant Spanish language has something to do with the sudden paranoia?

Are there legitimate reasons for the U.S. to have English as an official language or does xenophobia lie at the bottom of this debate?

Curious to hear your thoughts, especially from other countries that have settled into dual official languages, like Canada and Belgium, for instance or from nations like India who have adopted a lingua franca foreign to their land. Please feel free to "correct" any logical flaws in my assumptions.

Until then,


Posted by lhobbs at December 28, 2005 03:16 PM

Readers' Comments:


My first language is German and I work with others who are ESL students as well....I think it an atrocity that one would even think that "having a national language" even means that there should not be other languages abounding fruitfully in this nation!

As a wife of an attorney, I can best sum the situation up this way: it is an economical dilemma, not a racial or linguistics problem. It simply takes more money to provide translation services, legal papers duplicated in more than one language, etc., etc. That is the crux of the entire problem - it's not that anyone (well, I'm being idealistic here) is against languages, it's just that to have one official language means that all documents, etc., are written in that language.

I am totally in support of knowing more than one language - I, for one, come from a family of multilingual peoples - My grandfather spoke more than a dozen. My grandmother spoke seven languages and my own mother spoke five. I humbly admit to speaking English and perhaps two other languages somewhat....Let's support one another and end decisiveness.

Let's think rationally and make the year 2006 the year where intellectual discussion and dissension is dominated by peace and love. I, for one, am working on the latter . . . .

Dr. Vye

Posted by: Dr. Vye at January 3, 2006 02:26 AM


For the sake of government, business and most importantly, education -- I think for standardization purposes there ought to be one "official" language of America. English.

Sometimes I think it's easy to forget that America is only about 230 years old, officially. And if we look back 500 years or so, remember that the New World began to be settled by individuals speaking Spanish, French, Portuguese, and at last, English. America was colonized by loads of folks speaking lots of languages from Europe.

There's always been tons of languages other than English spoken in the States. It's a country of immigrants. And look at the European Union. Go in any direction over there and try to find somebody who doesn't speak at least 2 languages. That's fantastic. Canada's got French and English going on up there.

Everyone around the world seems to be learning to speak English. Why shouldn't the Americans also be learning to speak Spanish in school? Certainly in the United States there's not enough emphasis placed on foreign language learning. And so what, the Latin population of the USA is exploding. America has been morphing for nearly 300 years. America will always grow and change.

It's excellent for students to be learning Spanish at the same time as English. Nobody needs to change or add another "official" language. Whatever language you want can be spoken at home, where's the harm in that?

At work, that depends on so many factors but ultimately shouldn't that be an obvious choice --- whichever language propagates and promotes efficiency and productivity. Parents and schools ought to be encouraging bilingualism.

Chris K.

Posted by: Chris Kitrinos at January 3, 2006 03:42 AM


People all over the world learn English to communicate with each other. This is due to the spread of American culture around the globe, and it was done in English.

Example: A German and a Chinese man are doing business, most likely they communicate in English. Now the USA is considering fliping the script on non Spanish speaking immigrants. Most of the Spanish speaking people in the USA learn how to speak English anyhow, probably because that is still the official, even unofficial, language of the country.

Are we to assume that these immigrants can't learn to speak English, like other immigrants do? Another point is that this immigration wave from Spanish speaking nations is not a forced immigration, it's voluntary. These people chose to come to the US.

I learned to speak Spanish because I like the language, but my husband, a Turk, speaks Turkish and English. Should I ask him to learn to speak Spanish after years of studying English? I think that this movement is racially motivated. English is seen as a "white" langauge and therefore it is under attack in this age of political correctness.


Posted by: Beth at January 3, 2006 09:46 AM


It should be English, of course because this great country was created by and under the influence of mostly England.

The majority of Americans, LEGAL Americans who have worked its soil and ran its manufacturing that made it the GREAT country it is today were mostly English speakers. Others may come and live here and share in our blessings, but it is damnable they try to STEAL our heritage and our heritage is closely related to England, English and WEstern Europe. Some people don't like that, but hell, they can go home. :)

Sweden has an official language...had we not let every Tom Dick and Harry come here, don't you realize this country would be over 75 percent Anglo Saxon, English speakers!!!!!??????

People should count themselves blessed to even be here and stop trying to screw with the blessing that came to them from the Anglo Saxon "English" speakers GASP... :)


Posted by: June Narber at January 3, 2006 06:08 PM

Note from Lee:


I do realize that it's sometimes difficult to ascertain the intended tone of a remark via the Internet but I sincerely hope that yours was made earnestly tongue-in-cheek(?)

Posted by: Lee at January 3, 2006 06:14 PM


In the context of your asking readers to share their experience from countries with dual official languages, I thought it would be useful to discuss language policy in post-Soviet Central Asia, where the choice of an official language has become an ideological one.

The official language of the Soviet Union was Russian and, as well as the language of official dealings, it served as the language of inter-ethnic communication across the 15 republics. Naturally, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian was a key to the functioning of the republics, playing an important role in many domains. In many regions of the post-Soviet world, Russian suffers the same reputation as English in other parts of the world: the language of the colonizers and a mechanism for spreading cultural imperialism. In this light, Americans might find it useful to consider the ideological implications of choosing an official language (or more than one).

Turning to some specific examples: in Uzbekistan, Uzbek was made the sole official language at independence. The decision to choose Uzbek was an ideological one as in the new nation precedence was to be given to the dominant and titular ethnic group, the Uzbeks, who made up around 80% of the country’s population.

The choice of Uzbek has led to ethnic Uzbeks being in a strong position when it comes to obtaining government jobs. It has also had the effect of moving Uzbekistan away from the Russian sphere of influence. This decision can be seen as being a politically-motivated one which failed to take into account the actual levels of usage and competence for Uzbek within the country. This decision should be seen as part of the Uzbek government’s attempts to forge a national identity in a diverse multilingual and multicultural setting by embarking on a process of de-Russification and implementing language laws which favoured the use of Uzbek over Russian.

Language in this case was used as a political tool to the advantage of the dominant ethnic group in the country. A side effect of this policy of Uzbekification has been to disadvantage not only Russians but other minority groups. In this light, it is worth asking whether choosing English or Spanish (or English and Spanish) as the USA’s official language(s) would send out a clear signal to speakers of other languages that they are second-class citizens.

Kazakhstan also offers an interesting parallel. The country has two dominant languages – much as some would argue that the US has English and Spanish. Unlike in Uzbekistan where Uzbeks were a clear and dominant majority in 1991, ethnic Kazakhs found themselves in the minority when the country gained its independence. Nowadays, as a result of Russians leaving the country and Kazakh émigrés returning, Kazakhs are now the majority. However, they are in an interesting linguistic position, with many ethnic Kazakhs now speaking Russian as their native language. While keen, like the Uzbeks, to forge a national and linguistic identity, the Kazakhs have not been so vehemently anti-Russian as the Uzbeks, taking a more pragmatic approach to the role that the language plays within the country.

Kazakh is the state language, and the Kazakh government has gone to great lengths to promote its spread, with legislation is coming into place to assure the position of the Kazakh language. In Kazakhstan, as in some other post-Soviet countries, Russian enjoys a special status somewhat below that of state language - the status of an official language - but this is a kind of half-way house that satisfies no-one. In cities such as Almaty, Russian remains more widely spoken. In the countryside Kazakh has always been more common among ethnic Kazakhs.

However, there are still problems with getting people to learn the language and so incentives need to be put into place to ensure its spread. It is being used as a political tool, in that it is becoming necessary for obtaining government jobs, for example. In the media it is supposed to be used for 50% of the time – this has resulted in radio and TV often using Russian in the daytime and Kazakh in the early hours of the morning.

As the Kazakh government steps up its attempts to enforce the use of Kazakh some 15 years after independence, the issue is becoming more politicized. However, the government has exercised both caution and pragmatism in its gradual promotion of Kazakh, both in order to prevent a Russian braindrain and in the interests of ethnic harmony.

I believe that incentives rather than coercion and legal enforcement are the key to language issues. In the ELT classroom it is always better to gradually sell ideas to students such as working in pairs and groups rather than preaching and imposing ideas from above. Enshrining language status in law does not necessarily promote its learning. The moral of these points is that Americans should exercise caution over the matter of choosing an official language, as the official language can be turned into an ideological tool and used to subjugate and discriminate against other language groups within a given country.


Posted by: Paul Bartlett at January 5, 2006 04:52 AM

Hi all.

I'm going to start off with a comment directed at Lee's first few paragraphs and some comments touched on by others. The Oxford English Dictionary is forever adding new and exotic words to it's already mind-boggling collection of existing words. It is also interesting to note that as many as 25% of English words have are a derivative of, or are exactly the same as German.

Over the many years that the English language has been evolving there has been many a bloody conquest or crusade during which English speakers at the time were completely unaware that their ever changing language would eventually become the dominant language spoken over much of the world!

So in regards to imperalism and people wanting to box the English language in; I say to them: "Stop chasing your tails and try to keep up!!"

Ka kite!


Posted by: John at January 5, 2006 05:51 AM


Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.
Noam Chomsky

Just some stray thoughts about English & world language -

First, in response to;

Gerald Erichson - from About.com - reports that "Spanish and English are in a virtual dead heat to be the second most spoken language in the world. As of 1999, Spanish had 332 million speakers, while English had 322 million."

Ahem... I know that China is still off the map to most people, but in terms of real human numbers, Chinese, even when split into Mandarin (north China) and Cantonese (south) are easily the first and second most commonly spoken languages on our planet. 1.3 billion (more or less) is a heck of a lot more than a piddly 332 million.

Also, as much as I love English, a brief glance at early US history will tell you that, as I recall, congress came within one vote of making German (!) our official language. I seriously doubt if, say before 1900, there was anywhere near 75% born English speakers within the borders of the USA.

My mother, born in North Dakota in 1910, learned English as a second language. Her first language - and that of everyone else in her family, and most in her hometown, was Norwegian.

I do love English - and I love it because it constantly changes. American English is very different from the Queen's English (and those poor Canadians are stuck between both). ;-)

And the English I speak is very different from the English my mother spoke - and the English spoken by my Myspace generation daughter....

I guess, to sum it up, I think of language, especially English, as being inherently improvisational - like Jazz as a form of continually recalibrating communication.

Complaints about slang are misplaced. As long as communication is free and fluid, our language is alive.


Posted by: Morf at January 9, 2006 04:33 PM


Okay... I'm going to reply to this, not as an ESL teacher, but as someone who grew up in Florida and who recently spent over two years in Southern California.

In places where there is a high preponderance of Spanish speakers, it is often difficult to get a job (even in a minimum-wage, service-industry type position, such as fast food) without the ability to speak Spanish.

On one hand, this places people such as myself (my Spanish skills are essentially limited to ordering food and asking for directions) in a tough position in such areas; however, this is exactly they type of discrimination that rears its head when employers require employees to speak English.

In my opinion, the solution is not imposing an "official language" for the country, but improving the language education system in our public schools. (But I'm a teacher, of course I would say that.)


Posted by: Jane Keeler at January 14, 2006 06:39 AM

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