The politics of language in the USA

October 2, 2013 at 7:52 am

Photo: Kristopha Hohn

Here’s a question for you: what’s the official language of the USA?

If you said English, you are wrong.

There is no official national language in the US, despite various attempts to give English that status over the centuries. As a result, many individual states have introduced their own local laws. This has not been without problems. For example a 1998 “English Only” law introduced in Alaska was ruled unconstitutional and had to be amended due to the Native American languages that live alongside English in the state.

There are occasional outbreaks of concern in the USA about English losing its primacy among the hundreds of languages that are spoken there. Looking at the figures, perhaps this is understandable. In the 2007 US census, around 55 million of the 280 million responders spoke a language other than English at home. That’s just under 20% of the population. Of these, around two thirds spoke Spanish at home.

That gives the USA the world’s fifth largest Spanish-speaking population.

But it also has the world’s largest English-speaking population, and English speakers hold the positions of influence. If you want to get ahead in the USA, you must speak English.

The fear that a large number of non-English speaking new arrivals will somehow undermine English is logical, but the facts suggest that less than 5% of new starters in US schools struggle with English, and that figure rapidly reduces as students learn in English.

Not the first time

The current fear of Spanish taking over in parts of the USA has historical precedents. For a long time, German speakers were the largest linguistic minority in the country. It was a German-language paper, Der Pennsylvanische Staatsbote that was the first to report the American Declaration of Independence, and it did so in German translation. English speakers got a version the next day.

German was relatively common in parts of the USA until World War I, when campaigns were started to remove German language books from public libraries. After the war, German was stigmatised and never returned to its previous status.

When the USA acquired the French-speaking populations of Louisiana and the Spanish speakers in New Mexico and California, they soon lost access to French and Spanish language education.

There are a couple of interesting articles on the Economist’s excellent Johnson blog about “making them speak English” and whether the immigrant groups really threaten English-speaking America.

But just because English is the dominant language in the USA, and certain people want to make it the de jure official language, doesn’t mean that politicians are above using foreign languages to appeal to voters. Remember George W Bush speaking Spanish?

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