The Dangers of a National Language Act and "Official English"

Submitted to The Plain Dealer Letters to the Editor, April 13, 1995

The recent congressional proposal to declare English the official language of the United States may appear on the surface to be a logical, even obvious thing to do. But in truth, the National Language Act of 1995 (H. R. 1005) is, at best, an unnecessary piece of legislation and, at worst, a mean-spirited if not overtly prejudiced attack on linguistic minorities.

Proponents of the Act have created much concern and fear over statistics noting a "38 percent increase" in "non-English speakers" in the US over the past decade or that in 1990 nearly 32 million (14%) of Americans over the age of five do not speak English as compared to over 23 million (11%) in 1980. As is often the case with statistical data, these "facts" are extremely misleading. The U. S. Census for 1990 merely reports that 86 percent of Americans speak only English at home. This in turn must mean that 14 percent of Americans speak some other language at home. Rather than labeling this group as "non-English speaking" (as in the 1995 World Almanac), there is another possible (and ultimately more accurate) scenario: 14 percent of Americans speak some other language at home in addition to English.

The survey does in fact go on to show that nearly 80 percent of this group (over 25 million Americans) speak English "well" or "very well." Thus in total, over 94 percent of Americans speak English "very well" and 97 percent speak English at least "well." Less than 1 percent of all Americans (1.8 million) answered "not at all." The potentially "alarming" 38 percent increase from 11 to 14 percent from 1980 to 1990 is actually a decrease from the 17 percent reported in the 1970 census. Our country may well be more monolingual now than at any other time in our history. The official white population of our country in 1776 (no other races were counted) was 61 percent English, 10 percent Irish, and 8 percent Scottish with the remaining 21 percent comprised of (presumed non-English speaking) Germans, Dutch, French and Swedes.

If the National Language Act did nothing other than declare English as the official language of the United States, it could be a harmless, albeit unnecessary, law. It is already the language in which the vast majority of functions are performed. But it also raises the tricky question of enforcement: what would legally qualify as English? British English? Bostonian English? Virginian English? Illinois English? As a native Ohioan, would I be allowed to use my native dialect, or would I be forced to use the one of a New Yorker or a Texan? Even teachers of English have been unable to solve these problems and define a uniform national standard! The bill further stipulates that the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 and sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1975 relevant to bilingual voting be repealed. What purposes would these measures serve?

Most bilingual education programs are designed for transition, not maintenance, and actually encourage the teaching of English. Instead of allowing students to fall behind or, even worse, be marked as "slow" learners due solely to an inability to understand English, they are taught "content" material in their native language while also learning English as a Second Language (ESL). After acquiring enough English to perform in a "standard" classroom, these students are "mainstreamed" with their monolingual counterparts.

The Bilingual Education Act, contrary to popular belief, does not mandate programs in schools, but rather it offers grant money to districts on a competitive basis. Even given the stiff competition, funding is only available for 10 percent of the students eligible to benefit from such programs. The intent of this National Language Act is to recapture the funds provided via these grants (roughly $250 million) for use in the general fund. While this is indeed a substantial sum of money, it represents less than 2/1000 of a percent of the federal budget and less than 2/10 of a percent of the budget deficit which certain lawmakers are zealously trying to reduce.

The Voting Rights Act, which does mandate bilingual ballots, only does so in limited circumstances costing the federal government nothing. In order for a jurisdiction to qualify, a language-minority group must account for at least 5 percent of the voting-age population, the English literacy rate must be below the national average, and the 1972 election must have been conducted in English only resulting in a turnout of less than 50 percent of eligible adults. This effects only 300 counties nationwide. Many jurisdictions offer these ballots voluntarily viewing the right to vote as, in the words of the Supreme Court, a "fundamental right." The cost borne by districts for these ballots is minimal. According to a 1984 federal survey, it amounted to less than 8 percent of election expenses, or in San Francisco for example, it is estimated at less than three cents per household. If there is no federal and little local spending to be saved, what end could these lawmakers have in repealing this act? The only other effect it would be to hinder specific sectors of the electorate from voting. The Voting Rights Act was enacted specifically to counter this injustice just as poll taxes and literacy tests were outlawed.

A further provision of this bill requires that the oath of allegiance administered in ceremonies for the admission of new citizens be performed solely in English and herein, I believe, lies the true intent of the bill’s sponsors: to suggest that the use of a language other than English is inherently un-American. This in spite of the fact that the framers of the Constitution deliberately (and I believe wisely) chose not to declare an official language deciding that it would impede upon a citizen’s freedom of speech. For all intents and purposes, the bill’s express goal is a fait accompli. English is used by nearly everyone in the United States and considered by all to be our national language. The few who do not (yet) speak it largely want to, but learning a new language is a slow, often gradual process and the demand for ESL classes far surpasses their availability.

To mandate that English be the official language of our country would have as much value as mandating that the barbecue cookout be the official Fourth of July celebration. Would it really be necessary to further legislate that you only serve burgers and ribs? Cousin Mary is a vegetarian and Uncle Fred is allergic to pork, but hey, tell them to get with the program! They can eat what you cook, starve, or go somewhere else! Concerned about the rising costs of the annual family outing, you decide to save money by putting one less charcoal briquette in the fire. Chicken used to be a nice alternative, but it would be illegal now and frankfurters sound downright un-American. What would you do about condiments? Catsup, relish, lettuce, and tomatoes are fine, cheese is good (but not Swiss), and, to be on the safe side, you had better opt for regular yellow mustard rather than Grey Poupon. No one is sure what to think about mayonnaise. Naturally, tofu burgers would be out of the question.

Milton Alan Turner