Did you know that the United States does not have an official language?
English is the most common language spoken here, but there is no law that protects it as the language of U.S. citizens. This has been a debated topic since the 1750s and there have been several attempts made by lawmakers to make it official, but they were all in vain. The U.S. Census Bureau, a federal agency that collects data on U.S. Americans, reported in 2015 that at least 350 languages are spoken in our homes. In the New York metro area, almost 200 languages were documented. On the other coast, in Los Angeles, they found similar numbers. Of course, in smaller areas, the amount of multilingual people decreases.
The thing to remember is that, while people from all over the world come here to go sightseeing or start a new life, multiculturalism is not embraced by everyone. It is easy to find news reports of people living in metropolitan areas and are angry when they hear others speaking a language other than English. The same is true in rural areas, however, it does not necessarily mean that they are racists or xenophobics. Some people just believe that we should speak the common language in public.
Having an official language can be a very powerful thing. It can unite a community, give the people a sense of identity, and make legal paperwork easier to manage! Although these may be good reasons to choose a lingua franca, it seems that the federal government does not want to be involved in the process and leaves it up to the states to decide. There are fifty states in the U.S., and thirty-one of them have chosen to make their official language English. The Washington Post has a multicolored map showing the states that have declared it as their official language.
Both English and "foreign" languages are important to U.S. Americans. When I search for (television) cable packages, I find a lot of options for Arabic, Chinese, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Vietnamese and, of course, English and Spanish. Some channels have subtitles in two or three languages. Cellphones have several options for text-to-speech and a lot of mail from the government has at least four languages written on it and a phone number we can call if we need the information in a fifth language!
Since most people assume that English is the official language, maybe it is not important to declare it as such. Foreigners know that they can speak English here, but learning how to convert imperial units (ie. miles and inches) to metric units (ie. kilometers and centimeters) may be a bigger issue. What do you think?
*Updated on May 30th, 2019.
1. What is/ are your country's official language(s)?
2. Do you think it is important to speak a country's common language?
3. Do you think New York State should make English their official language?
4. Why do you think the federal government has not declared English as its official language?