5 Reasons Why I’m Glad to Have No Official Language in the US

5 Reasons Why I'm Glad There's No Official Language in the US
 

I’m not exactly the most excessively patriotic person on the planet. After all, I left the United States to become an expat seeking a better life in Germany – successfully I might add. However, one  thing that makes me particularly proud of being an American is that there is no official language in the US

You heard that right, there is no official language in the US, and I think that’s great.

English may serve as a “de facto” common language for most of the country, but I believe that the fact that we’ve never named an official language says something positive about our outlook and holds closely to the principles upon which our constitution was written.

When you think of the US what do you think of? Eagles? Soldiers? Guns? Fatty food that we stole from Europe and melted cheese all over?

That’s pretty much all true, but one more thing that everyone always seems to throw around is rampant English monolingualism.

  

Don’t get me wrong, we do have our fair share of proud rednecks whose trucks feature bumper stickers with such slogans as “This is America, in America we speak English!” plastered above their swinging truck nuts and next to their sticker of Donald Trump’s face.

But that’s really not us, don’t let a few strongly worded sentiments impact your opinion of the whole population – we’re mostly not like that.

In any case, despite the wishes of certain, particularly loud folks, the US remains a nation without a national language and I sincerely hope it stays that way.

Here’re a few reasons why.

1. It supports diversity

The US is known as a great melting pot of culture. We take immigrants from all over the world, of different social strata, of different religions and different world views and we squish them all into one great big kettle of boiling libertysauce.

Or at least that’s the idea. It certainly doesn’t always work out that way and we still end up drawing lines across communities racially, ethnically, religiously or just straight up economically.

Nonetheless, while I think integration is in general a good thing, I also think it’s important that people hang on to their heritage and their cultures. By doing so they add to the beautiful mosaic that a diverse country presents to the world. Retaining our languages is one way that we can do this happens.

While living in the US and not speaking English is still quite difficult, millions of people manage to do it. According to data collected by the US 2010 census one in twenty five US households speaks no English at all and one in four speak a language other than English in the household.

Creating an official national language could force many of these people into assimilating totally with a homogenous blob of culture.

Part of what makes the US so unique and fascinating is its diverse range of peoples and languages. It would be truly sad to see that dissolved into red, white and blue soup.

2. It encourages multilingualism

Having no official language encourages language learning.

The US already has an -albeit misguided- unfortunate reputation for being tragically monolingual, something that we have the power to change And we are changing gradually, and will continue to do so.

But that may not happen if we declare a national tongue.

By remaining without an unofficial language we make it more feasible for non-English speakers to remain an integral part of our society. In doing so we are encouraging the rest of us, who may or may not speak a language other than English, to take up the cup and try to familiarize ourselves with those in our communities.

For example, if you’re living in New York and your neighbor is Greek, are you more likely to try to learn a little bit of Greek? Maybe not totally, but even a few words, a greeting, a question here and there, could open you up to a world of stories, culture – and maybe even food – that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered by keeping your mouth shut.

3. It enhances international prestige

It just makes us look better.

If we make English our national language everyone else will jump on the “monolingual Americans, hahaha” bandwagon.

Why should we care about this? I feel like a multilingual and linguistically undeclared nation, by merit of its lack of national language alone, implies a certain degree of openness and a willingness to embrace other cultures and peoples.

By remaining without a national language the US is putting its best foot forward and telling the world that we’re proud of our diversity, of our history and of the languages and cultures that now reside within our borders.

I think not having an official language in the US better presents an image of our nation to an international community.

4. It’s fun to piss off truck nuts people5 Reasons Why I'm Glad there's no official language in the US

Need I elaborate?

Unfortunately there exists a culture of intolerance, of of segregation and of flawed nationalism that often rejects this diversity.

These people are numerous, though not the majority.

It’s a demographic calling for more seclusion, less interaction with the world, and wants the US close its borders to immigrants of all sorts.

There are many people who routinely lobby in favor of instituting an official language in the US, and to be fair they aren’t reserved to the aforementioned truck nutters. Pro-national language people often cite that multiple languages can cause problems in emergency situations.

Still, I believe that the pros of maintaining our lack of official languages outweigh the cons.

5. Supports the original message of the US as a free and multicultural nation

The United State was founded on the notion that people who arrived would be treated equally. It implied under no unspecific terms that they could come from every walk of life, from any country, from any religion.

We’ve had our issues with this idea over the years, and there are certainly improvements that could probably be made, but the message is still a good one and one we should strive to maintain.

By instituting an official language in the US we’re sending a message to those people that they will be assimilated like the Borg. That we’ll force English on them in a way contradictory to the ideals we founded this country on in the first place.


To be clear

The United States has no federally recognized national language – and that’s what I’m referring to here.

There are some individual states that have passed legislation that includes specific languages as “official state languages”

One example of this is Alaska. In 2014 the state of Alaska passed legislation that granted official status to 21 indigenous languages  including Yup’ik, Tlingit and Haida. Along with Hawaii, Alaska is the only other state to officially recognize indigenous languages in the US.

A lack of official language doesn’t mean that the government has to print every official document or use interpreters for every presidential speech for every single language. It does however tend to aid in providing certain services such as tax paperwork, medical information and some legal documents.

In California, someone taking their driver’s license test has the option of taking it in over 32 languages.

The official language of the US has been a topic for years now following the massive increase of Spanish speakers in the country. We’ve been arguing about whether or not the US should declare Spanish a national language (along side English). Right now that doesn’t look like something we’re going to do.

Conclusion

I can’t claim to be proud of everything my country does, especially in this crazy and wildly internationalized presidential election campaign.

I did, after all, leave – albeit not for political reasons.

But I am proud that we haven’t ever instituted a nationally recognized “official language”.

It most importantly exemplifies that which the US originally stood for – the inclusion of people from all over the world looking to improve their lives.

Most countries do have official languages and that there are arguably good reasons for instituting them. However, I’m happy that there’s no official language in the US and I hope it stays that way.

What about you? What are the official, national languages of your countries? Do you support them? Why or why not?

 

Leave a comment!

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  • Stan Blue

    “The United State was founded on the notion that people who arrived would be treated equally. ”

    No, slaves were imported for some time after the foundation. Now the notion is true, but we should not pretend that it was the case at the foundation.

    “According to data collected by the US 2010 census one in twenty five US households speaks no English at all”

    And such people are greatly disadvantages, for example many jobs are unavailable to them.

    “Creating an official national language could force many of these people into assimilating totally with a homogenous blob of culture.”

    Why? It all depends on what having an official national language would mean.

    ‘If we make English our national language everyone else will jump on the “monolingual Americans, hahaha” bandwagon.’

    I do not understand this statement at all. German is the official language in Germany, but I do not think that everyone else jumps on the ‘“monolingual [Germans], hahaha” bandwagon.’

  • My takeaway is that sure, our country is extensively flawed, but let’s champion the characteristics on which we can actually hang our hats. While we have an extremely imperfect history regarding equality and immigration, thank goodness there are numerous examples of Americans celebrating diversity and ongoing movements towards a more just and equal country, and language’s impact can’t be underestimated. I’ve been bitter about my nationality numerous times, but have grown to admire it the more I travel outside of the U.S. and see how accepting and tolerant many American cities actually are. Yes, I’m a stubborn optimist and have been lucky to live in very diverse communities within the U.S., but I hear what Brian’s saying–let’s celebrate the wins, as infrequent as they may be!

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that traveling gives a new perspective of your home country. Since moving to Germany there are things I’ve come to miss – such as total freedom of speech. You’d think that Germany, being the progressive, Western country that it is, wouldn’t limit this in any way, but it does. You can’t insult people in the streets or on TV.

      You can in the US.

      Not that I make a habit of doing this or anything, but I find the notion that I lack the right to do so somewhat jarring and oppressive.

      Still, I’m the guest here, so rules are rules. Just a random example that has been on my mind in the wake of that public debacle with that comedian and Erdogan a few weeks ago.

  • Anthony659225

    I agree with you, Brian, up to a point. Diversity is fine, as long as social cohesiveness can be preserved. There has been concern expressed by some observers of the American scene that the “Balkanization” of the U.S.A. is a real danger. In other words, a fractured society — fractured along religious, political, and — yes — linguistic lines. And, as with the Balkans, violence would be an almost inevitable outcome.

    We have to be able to communicate with each other. Whether or not English is “official,” I have no problem with “nudging” people into learning it. And economic advantage, for example, can be one big nudge.

    I was once riding in a train going from northern India to the southern part of the country. Hindi is spoken in the north and Tamil in the south. I started talking with a very nice gentleman who was going to what was then Madras (now Chennai), which is in the south, for business. He said if it weren’t for English he would not be able to speak with the people in the south. Yes, a lingua franca. I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to say that English helps to keep that extremely diverse country together.

    So, diversity matters, linguistically and otherwise. But go too far, and peace can easily give way to violence. Just ask the folks who live in the Balkans.

  • Ketutar Jensen

    I am Finnish and there are two official languages in my homecountry. I live in Sweden and there is one official language here. I speak three languages fluently; Finnish, Swedish and English. What you are describing as consequences of making English an “officially” official language sounds really strange to me. I don’t have that experience of iiving in a country with an official language.
    Needing to learn Swedish so that I can function and benefit fully of the society hasn’t made me Swedish or any less Finnish. I speak Finnish with my relatives and people who speak Finnish. I have a slight Finnish accent in my Swedish and a slight expatriate accent in my Finnish. I celebrate the Finnish holidays in a Finnish manner and support our sportsmen in Finnish. I prefer Finnish foods and traditions and my social codes are Finnish.
    The same with our Syriac, Chilean, Somalian etc. neighbors. They know Swedish, but they haven’t forgotten their roots, ethnicity, nationality of their birth. I can’t imagine the officiality of the status of the Swedish language would make any difference.

    Also, people who have no interest to learn another language won’t become more interested of learning languages just because the language they speak isn’t official… the reason to why more USonians are learning another language is that the Internet has made the world a smaller place… more and more people travel and become aware of the amazing treasure chest languages are. After all, most European countries have one or more official languages, but 56% of Europeans speak more than one language. USA has none and 75% speak nothing but English… sounds like your theory is flawed.

    Also, international prestige? Nah. Most people don’t even know that Engish isn’t the official language of USA. Besides, WE have made our language the official language of our country, what’s so bad about that? Huh? Are you saying we are bad?

    Another thing, maybe it is possible to take the test in dozens of languages in some places of USA, but it doesn’t cover the whole country.

    Finland and Sweden have official minority languages also, and all the services are available on these languages. We also provide an interpreter so that people who can’t speak Swedish or Finnish will be able to fill in the official papers and get healthcare etc.

    You could also make the indigenous languages the official languages and ban English. “If you want to speak English, go back to England”.