“Official language” doesn’t mean the main language of the country; it means the language used in government. If the U.S. made English its official language, ALL business carried out in government offices would have to be in English. This includes the post office, police stations, courts, and all city, county, and federal offices.
If English was made official, places with large Hispanic populations would not be permitted to have Spanish-language announcements in fundamental information resources, like a water or gas bill. In areas near Native American reservations, such as the Navajo Nation in Arizona, the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and the Navajo court system would have to use English, with the Navajo language not being allowed. All Navajo litigants would have to bring interpreters.
Since the U.S. has no official language on the federal level, neighborhoods and areas where other languages are largely spoken, such as Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese, inhabitants can receive government materials, announcements, etc., in their language.
To date, twenty-eight states have declared English the official language of their local governments; most having done so within the last few decades as a result of the “English Only” movement. However, due to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, any public entity in the state that receives federal funds must provide all vital documents in every single language that any client of that agency speaks. In effect, the “English Only” declaration is a lot of conservative barking with no legal bite.
The fact that English isn’t the official language of the United States hasn’t stopped it from becoming the dominant language of the country. Although there are as many as 350 different languages spoken across the country, native English speakers comprise about 82% of the population, native Spanish speakers come in at number two at about 13%, and various other European and Asian languages comprise the bulk of the balance. However, despite about 18% of the U.S. population natively speaking a different tongue than English, a full 96% of United States citizens speak English fluently. So it is unlikely that English is going anywhere as the de facto language of the United States in the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, only a fifth of American adults can speak a second language. It’s a surprisingly low fraction of the population compared to other countries. Even in the United States’ earliest beginnings as the Thirteen Colonies, colonists spoke English, Dutch, German, and French. Demanding that people speak English simply because “this is America” is nonsense and doesn’t serve the ever-expanding diversity of the country.
Did you know that the U.S. has 24 English dialects? You might also be interested to learn about English as the official language of the air and the sea, or why English has no official language academy! To learn more about the future of the English language, check out my post, The Future of English.
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Stories For Young Readers is a graded textbook series for students studying English as a second language. The books are designed to extend students’ skills and interest in communicating in English. Teachers can utilize the stories and exercises for listening comprehension, reading, writing, and conversation.