Only about half the countries in the world have declared a national language, but the debate over language, both in terms of national language and official language, is carried on around the globe. The focus of the debate varies, the language at the center of the debate varies, and the issues that propel the debate vary. Whether in Malaysia, the Philippines, Belarus, Fiji, or Ireland, or the United States, language is part of the identity felt by culture and nation, and official status carries with it a reflection on status that sparks great emotion within the debate.

James Crawford, who is founder and president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy (a nonprofit organization that promotes research-based advocacy for English and heritage-language learners), provides a brief synopsis of both sides of the debate in his book, Language Loyalties:

“For supporters, the case is obvious: English has always been our common language, a means of resolving conflicts in a nation of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Reaffirming the preeminence of English means reaffirming a unifying force in American life. Moreover, English is an essential tool of social mobility and economic advancement. The English Language Amendment would “send a message” to immigrants, encouraging them to join in rather than remain apart, and to government, cautioning against policies which could retard English acquisition.

“For opponents, Official English is synonymous with English Only: a mean-spirited attempt to coerce Anglo-conformity by terminating essential services in other languages. The amendment poses a threat to civil rights, educational opportunities and free speech, even in the private sector. It is an insult to the heritage of cultural minorities, including groups whose roots in this country go deeper than English speakers–Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and American Indians. Worst of all, the English-Only movement serves to justify racist and nativist biases under the cover of American patriotism (Crawford, 1992, p. 2-3). [1]

In testimony offered before the House Subcommittee on Education Reform on July 26, 2006, Crawford also argued that “Language has been far less central to American identity than to, say, French or Greek or Russian identity. From its infancy the United States was conceived as a nation that newcomers could join, whatever their ethnic background, (Except in a few shameful cases, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) simply by swearing loyalty to the democratic principles on which it was founded. To be sure, there have been ugly episodes of language-based discrimination, such as the English Only school policies that once targeted Native Americans and Mexican Americans. Unlike many other countries, however, we have seldom passed laws to repress or restrict minority tongues. Language has usually been taken for granted here – as a practical rather than a symbolic issue – despite the diversity that has historically prevailed.”

While the United States has no official language, 96% of the population speaks English “well” or “very well”. [2] There are nearly 340 language spoken or signed by those living in Americans, but the debate that centers itself on language has placed English squarely in its sights.

It’s notable that English first groups debunk the myth that the founding fathers believed that English should be the national language.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., a conservative author, contends that the founding fathers were not generally in favor of large-scale immigration. He writes:

“George Washington contended in a 1794 letter to John Adams that there was no particular need for the U.S. to encourage immigration, “except of useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men or professions.” He continued: “The policy or advantage of its taking place in a body (I mean the settling of them in a body) may be much questioned; for by so doing, they retain the language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them.”[3]

Woods argues that the question of immigration and language wasn’t an issue with the founding fathers because the question wasn’t raised.

On their website,English Foundtion, an advocate for an English first nation, supports the notion that language was not an issue for the founding fathers:

“Why didn’t the founders make English the official language? It simply may not have occurred to them. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound… All fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention spoke English. They took it for granted English was the language of this country. Since the overwhelming majority of the American population spoke English, the founders may not have thought it necessary to declare in law what existed in fact.”[4]

The U.S. English Foundation also addresses what they call the myth that German nearly became the national language:

“Just six years after the Constitution took effect, Congress deliberately rejected a request to publish copies of federal laws in German. (From this incident arose the myth that, by one vote, German failed to become our national language.) Two years later, Congress rejected a similar request. The debates cited the cost of printing in multiple languages and the confusion that might result from problems in translation–concerns as valid today as two hundred years ago.”[5]

Author Carol L. Schmid argues that language often serves as the entrée for a larger debate:

“Language alone has rarely been the major source of conflict in American society; instead, it has been the proxy for other conditions that have challenged the power relations of the dominant group (s).” [6]

Immigration, of course, is at the heart of the debate about language in the United States. Immigration patterns, however, have drastically changed in the last century or so, and the new patterns have contributed to the intensity of the debate.

In 1914, President Theodore Roosevelt stated, “We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” [7]
In 1900 (and the fifty or more years that preceded it), 96% of those immigrating to the U. S were from Europe. By 1960, 53% of the immigrants were from Europe, 25% from Latin America and Mexico, and 6% from Asia. In 1998, only 15% of the immigrants came from Europe, while 47% came from Mexico and Latin America, and 31% from Asia. By the end of the twentieth century, more than 90% of those who immigrated to the United States came from non-European countries.[8]

Among the important factors that helped change the pattern of immigration was the 1965 abolishment of the national origin quota system. Family reunification was now the key factor, replacing the country of origin as a key criterion for entry to the U.S. Because of this fundamental change in policy, Spanish speaking immigrants increased far more quickly than any other group, and this helped create the focus of English first advocates on Spanish speakers.

In May of 2006, the United States Senate added a proposal to the Senate immigration bill designating English as the national language, [9] and in the 2007 presidential primary debates in 2007, the question of English as a national language was tied to the issue of immigration reform. [10]


1. Crawford, J. (1992). Language Loyalties: A source book on the Official English controversy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

2. a 1 2 3 Summary Tables on Language Use and English Ability: 2000 (PHC-T-20), U.S. Census Bureau, retrieved on 2009-07-19

3. Posted 2007-07-20, retrieved on 2009-07-07

4., retrieved 2009-07-07

5., retrieved 2009-07-07

6.  Schmid, C. (2001). Language Loyalties:Conflict, Identity, and Cultural Pluralism in Comparative Perspective. London: Oxford Press.

7. Roosevelt, Theodore, Works (Memorial ed., 1926), vol. XXIV, p. 554 (New York: Charles Scribner’s 11 Sons).

8. Schmid, C. (2001). Language Loyalties:Conflict, Identity, and Cultural Pluralism in Comparative Perspective. London: Oxford Press.

9. Hulse, C. (2006, May 10). Senate Votes to Set English as National Language. New York Times. Retrieved July 07, 2009, from

10. Navarrette, R. (2007, June 06). A Needless debate on language [Editorial]. San Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved July 07, 2009, from


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