Official English Legislation: Myths and Realities

For the past 11 years, I have been the Chairman of U.S. ENGLISH, Inc., the nation’s oldest and largest citizens’ action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States. During that time, I have encountered many myths about official English legislation.

A few of these myths were recently repeated in an opinion piece in the Contra Costa Times. In his column, Domenico Maceri, a foreign language instructor at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California writes, “???the anti-bilingual education movement and the English-only movement could easily be labeled an anti-Spanish movement.”

In that one sentence, Mr. Maceri repeats two of the most ridiculous myths about official English. There are other distortions as well. These will likely come up as Congress debates HR 997, the English Language Unity Act of 2003, which would make English the official language of the United States.

Here are five of the most common myths about official English and the realities behind them.

Myth No. 1: Official English Is Anti-Immigrant

Declaring English the official language benefits all Americans, but it benefits immigrants most of all. Immigrants who speak English earn more money, do better in school and have more career options than those who do not.

As an immigrant from Chile, I can testify that English proficiency is the most important gift we can give to newcomers. In fact, polls show that 70% of Hispanics and 85% of all immigrants support making English the official language of the United States. Learning English is the key to assimilating into the mainstream of American society. That is why our organization, U.S. ENGLISH, Inc., advocates for English immersion classes for immigrant students and adults.

Myth No. 2: Official English Is “English Only”

Many far-left opponents of official English, such as the ACLU, refer to our legislation as “English Only.” Official English simply requires that government conduct its business in English. It does not dictate what language must be spoken in the home, during conversation, cultural celebrations or religious ceremonies. It does not prohibit the teaching of foreign languages. It does not affect private businesses or the services offered by them. In addition, HR 997 makes exceptions for emergency situations.

Myth No. 3: Today’s Immigrants Are Learning English Just Like the Immigrants of Old

The United States has a rapidly growing population of people-often native born- who are not proficient in English. The 2000 Census found that 21.3 million Americans (8% of the population) are classified as “limited English proficient,” a 52% increase from 1990, and more than double the 1980 total. More than 5.6 million of these people were born in the United States. In states like California, 20% of the population is not proficient in English.

The Census also reports that 4.5 million American households are linguistically isolated, meaning that no one in the household older than age 14 can speak English. These numbers indicate that the American assimilation process is broken. If not fixed, we will see our own “American Quebec” in the Southwestern United States and perhaps other areas of the country.

Myth No. 4: The Founding Fathers Rejected Making English the Official Language

English has been the language of our nation from its earliest days. In 1789, 90% of our nation’s non-slave inhabitants were of English descent. Any notion that they would have chosen another language or used precious resources on printing documents in multiple languages lacks common sense.

The issue of an official language was never discussed at the Constitutional Convention as the topic was not controversial enough to be debated. Even the Dutch colonies had been under English rule for more than a century. Contrary to popular belief, Congress never voted on a proposal to make German the official language. This myth is probably based on a 1794 bill to translate some documents into German (it was defeated).

Myth No. 5: In a Global Culture, an Official Language Is Anachronistic

Ninety-two percent of the world’s countries (178 of 193) have at least one official language. English is the sole official language in 31 nations and has an official status in 20 other nations, including India, Singapore, the Philippines, Samoa and Nigeria.

There has never been a language so widely spread in so short a time as English. It is the lingua franca of the modern world as much as Latin was the common tongue of the Roman Empire. Roughly one quarter of the world’s population is already fluent or competent in English and this number grows by the day.

English is the global language of business, communications, higher education, diplomacy, aviation, the Internet, science, popular music, entertainment and international travel. Immigrants who don’t know English not only lose out in the American economy, but also in the global economy.

These are just some of the myths that must be corrected if we are to have a debate on a coherent language policy. This policy should be built on fact, not myth. Multilingual government is a disaster for American unity and results in billions of dollars in unnecessary government spending. We need only to look at Canada to see the problems that multilingualism can bring. HR 997 could be our last best chance to stop this process and we cannot let distortions about official English sidetrack this legislation.

HR 997: English
Language Unity Act of 2003

Title: To declare English as the official language of the United States, to establish a uniform English language rule for naturalization, and to avoid misconstructions of the English language texts of the laws of the United States, pursuant to Congress’ powers to provide for the general welfare of the United States and to establish a uniform rule of naturalization under article I, section 8, of the Constitution.

Sponsor: Rep Steve King (R.-Iowa) (introduced 2/27/2003)

Cosponsors: 89

Latest Major Action: 5/5/2003 Referred to House subcommittee.

Status: Referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution.

Summary: (as of date introduced) English Language Unity Act of 2003-Amends specified Federal law to declare English to be the official language of the United States.

  • Gives representatives of the Federal Government an affirmative obligation to preserve and enhance the role of English as the official language of the Federal Government, including encouraging greater opportunities for individuals to learn the English language.
  • Requires the official functions of the United States (meaning, in this case, the States and the District of Columbia) to be conducted in English. Sets forth exceptions to and rules of construction for such requirements.
  • Requires a uniform English language rule for U.S. naturalization, and all naturalization ceremonies to be conducted in English.
  • Amends specified Federal law to declare, as a general rule of construction, that English language requirements and workplace policies, whether in the public or private sector, shall be presumptively consistent with the Laws of the United States.
  • Requires the Department of Justice to issue for public notice and comment a proposed rule for uniform testing of English language ability of candidates for naturalization, based upon the principles that: (1) all citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Laws of the United States; and (2) any exceptions to this standard should be limited to extraordinary circumstances, such as asylum.