The Official English Debate: Told Through Pictures

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Official Languages of Canada: A Foreign Example Worth Learning Aboot

Canada has two official languages; French and English. In Canada, laws recognizing the Official Languages “give English and French a special legal status over other languages in Canada’s courts, Parliament, and other federal institutions.”  In order to immigrate to Canada, proficiency in one of the official languages is one of the primary criteria. The Canadian Government’s immigration website says:

“Your proficiency in English or French is one of the six selection factors for skilled workers.”

These policies have similarities to the objective that American proponents of the English Language Unity Act of 2011 hope to accomplish with English alone.

Like the U.S., Canada’s ethnic and linguistic diversity is increasing. As of the 2001 Canadian Census, 18% of their population has a native language other than English or French.  Canadian citizens have the right to communicate with the government in either English or French, but they must learn one of them.  Their official language policy may offer support why, as of 2006, only 2% of the Canadian population did not speak English or French.

The U.S., with no official English policy, has a similar percentage of people with a native language other than English (20%) as Canada, but a much higher percentage of people that do not speak the de facto national language (8%).  The Canadian government believes having 2 equal Official Languages has been beneficial both for their society and for their economy.

It can certainly be argued that having official language legislation and requirements in Canada has led immigrant groups to be more proactive in learning one of the national languages of the country, which has in turn enabled more of them to escape linguistic isolation and learn the skills necessary for economic advancement.

The detractors of Canada’s official language policy claim that it protects minority populations that speak either English or French, but discriminates against all other ethnic linguistic minorities. They believe a multicultural policy would be more egalitarian than a bicultural policy. If the goals of the original bilingual policy, equality and unity, are to be realized then the laws need to be widened to include greater collective rights for ethnic minorities (even if their languages are not to be officially recognized).

Other countries’ official language policies can give us insight on the processes of structuring a new policy here in the U.S.  In Canada, their official languages are recognized in their constitution.  Official English proponents in the U.S. have tried go the constitutional amendment route as well, but given that they cannot get the votes to pass it as regular legislation, this has also failed.

Another lesson we can learn by looking at other countries is that there is a plethora of different policy process options for dealing with this issue that can lead to different outcomes..

1. The U.S. can remain without an official language and be content with a de facto national language (like the U.K. and Australia)

2. The U.S. can establish English as the only national language via the English Language Unity Act or other legislation (like Guyana or Jamaica).

3. The U.S. can equally recognize two official languages for government business; English and Spanish (with a similar set up to Canada).

4. The U.S. can also decide to recognize several different languages (South Africa has 11 official languages).

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English as an Official Language in the U.S.: Pros and Cons

The main arguments for both sides of this controversial issue are summarized in the Pro and Con articles at If you have an opinion on the matter then vote in this poll ———————————————————————————————————–>

They highlight some critical questions and arguments central to this issue, which I will paraphrase:

Does having one official language facilitate assimilation or does it just marginalize those that do not speak it well?

Pro: People can still learn other languages if they want, but institutionalizing a common language will help to unify Americans. It will also encourage immigrants to develop the English ability necessary in this country for economic advancement and democratic participation.

Con: America is a nation of immigrants. Linguistic minorities should be protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Refusing to provide them access to government services in their native language is discrimination.

Is it practical to have an official language established by the federal government?

Pro: Providing government documents and translators for 300+ languages is extremely costly. Having an official language will save the government lots of money and free up funds that can better serve linguistic minorities in areas such as English education and job training programs.

Con: This is a non-issue, our language policies work fine as they are right now. This should be left to the states to decide.

How does the American public feel about this issue?

Pro: 87% of American voters want English to become the Official Language

Con: “That the desires of the majority of the people are often for injustice and inhumanity against the minority, is demonstrated by every page of the history of the whole world.” -John Adams

And the most important question to ask when debating policy..

Does Official English serve the public interest?

Pro: Yes, it will benefit immigrants and society if they are forced to learn the English language, but exceptions can still be made in life or death circumstances (refuges). Our society will be less divisive and function better under one common, officially recognized language.  More people will be able to understand the already de facto language of the government and actively participate in our democratic system. Less taxpayer money will be wasted on redundant documents.

Con: No, in the case of a public emergency the government would not be able to effectively help affected citizens.  Official English may discourage additional language learning, which would have negative implications for international trade and diplomacy in an increasingly globalized world.

One of the most interesting aspects of this issue is that 87% of American voters support English as the official national language, yet a bill on the matter has consistently failed to become law in the legislative process.  This may be a testament to the true function of government in the policy process: Lawmakers are protectors of the rights of the people rather than a purveyor of the will of the people.

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The English Language: Facts and Figures

English is geographically the most widely spoken language on Earth (as shown in the red in the picture above) and the language most commonly used in international business and travel (a lot of credit goes to British colonialism and the American military on this one). After scouring the internet, I have reached the conclusion that there are between 30-60 countries that have English as their official language, or at least 1 of their official languages.  This website lists the number of countries with English as the official language at 51 and also has some other nifty stats and background info.

The English Language by the numbers:

  • English is the official language of 52 countries.
  • 104 countries have substantial numbers of native English speakers.
  • It is third most spoken language by population (after Mandarin and Hindi) with around 340 million native English speakers. Presumably, there are more than twice as many that speak it as a second or third language.

When you think of the world’s preeminent English speaking countries, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand probably come to mind. It may surprise you to find out that English is not the official language of any of these countries. English is simply the de facto language. Why is this? Establishing an official language may have seemed incongruent with the pluralist, multicultural ethos of these countries, or perhaps it just seemed superfluous. Either way, if the U.S. wants to move forward with establishing English as an official language, there is no equivalent native English speaking country to examine as a clear precedent to provide insight on all of the economic, demographic, and social changes that will inevitably occur.

* The other populous predominantly English speaking countries I did not mention such as South Africa and Canada have more than one official language

**92% of countries have at least 1 official language

“English is destined to be in the next and succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age.”

-John Adams

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A Refresher Course on the Legislative Process

This video from schoolhouse rock may bring back memories of 4th grade social studies.  If you haven’t seen it, consider it Legislative Process 101.

The current deficit negotiation process has not been a great showcase of the altruism and statesmanship of America’s political leaders.  In this great scene from Mr. Smith goes to Washington, Senator Smith and his assistant go over the process of proposing a bill. Although his knowledge of the legislative process is lacking, it would be nice to see this kind of political passion and concern for the public welfare every now and then on C-Span 3.  The key to any policy process is the people involved in it.  In juxtaposition to Mr. Smith, advancing legislation in the real world requires more than faith in the American Dream.  The process is all about getting the votes behind the bill; a process in which personality and political savvy can be more of an asset than a law school education. A tactful, motivated, and well respected politician who knows how to make deals can do far more than a bum with a good idea.

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Becoming Involved in the Policy Process

Newsweek recently gave a U.S. citizenship test to 1000 random Americans and 38% of the respondents ended up failing, even given the basic nature of the questions. Should the standard of knowledge required to become a naturalized U.S. citizen be significantly higher than civic knowledge of the average American citizen? The English Language Unity Act of 2011 would require prospective citizens to read and demonstrate understanding of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws of the United States.

If you think you are one of the civic-ly savvy, then click here to take the quiz.

Given that 29% of Americans aren’t aware that Joe Biden is the Vice President, it may not be a big leap to assume that many people do not know who the congressman for their district is in the House of Representatives.

After educating yourself on an issue that you are passionate about, a great way to get involved in the legislative process is to find where your representative stands on an issue and write them a letter (or email).

This website run by the House allows you to quickly find your Representative by zip code and shoot them an email.

If the legislation you care about has not been voted on yet and your Representative is not a sponsor, then their stance on the issue may be vague or not explictly stated on their website.

My Representative, Jim Moran, is a Democrat in favor of comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. This might suggest that he opposes H.R. 997 (The English Language Unity Act of 2011), but I still do not know for sure.

I decided to send Representative Moran an email to see what his thoughts were on this issue and will post his reply when it is received.

Where does your representative stand on the English Language Unity Act of 2011?

“The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”


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The Power of Social Media

The whole concept of top-down government is very 20th century.  The development of the internet as an institution for the global exchange of knowledge represents a permanent change in public policy process.  In the past, the mediums for information could be more easily controlled and politicians were only held accountable when they rode back in town during election time.  Now the internet is a breeding ground for grassroots movements.   Anyone can voice their opinion and access information, so it has become easier than ever to enact change by corralling public opinion behind pressing policy issues.  The revolutions in the middle east are a testament to how quickly and powerfully social media can assist in changing the political landscape.

*In one of our class readings, The Truth Will Make You Fret: The News Media, The New Media, and Tax Policy, author Billy Hamilton makes an important point that at times “We are information saturated, but understanding deficient”, so professional journalism still plays a large, complementary role in helping people discern issues.

Nevertheless, The 21st century is well upon us now and we now have the leader of the free world holding Twitter Town Halls.  Every bill, politician, and advocacy group has a website, twitter, or a Facebook page.  The following links show you an example of the online presence in the debate on whether English should be the official language of the United States.



Reform Immigration for America


The Debate continues on Facebook with pages like this:

Make English the Official Language of the United States

America has no Official Language so STFU about Immigrants Learning English

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