English Language Unity Act of 2011

In a nutshell, public policy is the process and decision of the government to act or not act on an issue.  There are several ways to go about this, but one of the primary vehicles is through legislation.

At the state level, the debate over whether English should be the official language has been going on for a long time. As early as 1879, California had laws on the books declaring that government business must be done in English.  The movement for federal legislation has only started gaining traction in the past couple years.  There are a couple bills under consideration, but the primary one is the English Language Unity Act of 2011.  There is a version of this bill in each house; H.R. 997 in the House of Representatives and S. 503 in the Senate.

http://www.govtrack.us (a website that tracks pending legislation) boils a complex legislative process down to 6 easy steps:

  1. Bill is introduced
  2. Referred to a committee for deliberation
  3. Reported on floor by committee
  4. House vote
  5. Senate Vote
  6. Signed by Obama
Both bills are currently sitting in committees where the horse trading, discussion, and revision will eventually take place. Presumably the issue is being put to the side at the moment while congress deals with more pressing financial issues.  The majority of bills never even make it out of committee.  The fact that this legislation has 98 co-sponsors in the house and several advocacy groups with deep pockets promoting it suggests though that it will not go away anytime soon. 
Soo lets take a look at the key elements of this legislation:
1. Official functions (read: government business and documents) of the United States must be done in English
2. All prospective citizens seeking naturalization must have a certain level of English proficiency and all ceremonies will be conducted in English
3. All citizens should be able to read and understand the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Laws of the United States
4. English will be declared the Official language
*Only extraordinary circumstances are exempt from these laws (asylum, refuges, etc)
If passed, this would be a game changer.  “Official functions” is an umbrella term that could have many implications.  English-only election ballots could theoretically disenfranchise many Americans. Then again it could also save the government a lot of money in a nation where the de facto language is already English.  It is easy to jump on the partisan bandwagon, but much more difficult to understand a complex issue in depth.
Should America require immigrants to be proficient in English?  Turning the situation around, I think of my study abroad experience in Japan in 2009.  I went over there with the assumption that I would have to make an honest attempt to learn their language out of respect for their culture and way of life.  I personally felt my quality of life improved after I was able to assimilate somewhat into their culture and escape linguistic isolation.  If I was considering a permanent move, it would seem logical to learn the national language.  Perhaps America is different though.  Perhaps our strength is derived more from our diversity than our unity.  Does promoting the English language cause immigrants to lose their identity or help them gain their identity? Perhaps the real issue here is not whether immigrants should learn English, but whether the government should dictate the terms. Food for thought. Feel free to comment..
“Language is the tool of my trade, and I use them all- all the Englishes I grew up with.”
-Amy Tan

About officialenglishpolicy

I am a George Mason Graduate student on a public policy quest to enlighten the masses. "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. He who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or decisions possible or impossible to execute." -Abraham Lincoln
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One Response to English Language Unity Act of 2011

  1. Maham Akbar says:

    While the federal government may save some money by making English the official national language, it is important to consider how much that would actually be and if the savings of the federal government may actually be shifted toward state and local governments and/or on citizens and non-citizens.

    I’m not sure that translating government documents accounts for much of either federal or state/local spending but if English was made the official language with the stipulations you outlined, then people would either have to spend their own income to learn English, have documents translated and get help filling them out, and hiring translators. State and local governments may also have to do the same to ensure that their citizens are getting these services. If people cannot spend their own income or if state and local governments or community organizations cannot provide these services, you are left with many people who may be unable to access public programs because they cannot understand and fill out the paperwork required or couldn’t vote because translated ballots were unavailable.

    While I do believe that knowledge of English is necessary to fully function as a citizen of the US, I don’t necessarily believe the federal government should mandate it. Clearly, the costs of such legislation outweigh the benefits.

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