English as an Official Language (in the USA)

with 15 comments

Mauro E. Mujica

Last March a Polk County judge in Iowa ruled that the State government was violating it’s own laws by providing websites and voter registration forms in a variety of languages, including Spanish and Vietnamese. Iowa, you see, made English it’s sole official language in 2002. It is one of 30 states that have enacted some form of legislation making English their official language.

At the federal level the United States do not have an official language. English is de facto the language of administration, but there is no official language act that says has to be that way. Legislation to that effect has been introduced many times in the Congress, as recently as 2006, but as of yet none has successfully survived the Washington legislative process.

A the frontline of the Official English movement is the US English organization founded in 1983.

The current president of US English is Mauro E. Mujica, a naturalized US citizen born in Chile who speaks fluent English, Spanish and French.

He kindly accepted to answer a few AngryFrenchQuestions:

1.Can you tell me how someone with your background, Spanish-speaking, born outside the United States, came to the conclusion that the US needed to make the English language official?

When I came as an immigrant to an English speaking country, I knew that I had to learn the language of the country I was going to in order to be successful. In fact, when I first came here, I assumed that English was already the official language of the United States.

In addition to my experience as an immigrant, I also discovered the importance of a common language during my career as an architect. Many of the projects I worked on involved projects overseas – projects I would be unable to get if I didn’t speak the language of that country, or if we did not have a common language through which to conduct business.

To build a nation, all you need are people. But to build a civically united society, you need the common bond of language.

2.Considering that English is the uncontested global language and that 95% of the children of immigrants to the US are considered fluent, isn’t pro-English legislation just overkill?

The societal expectation is that immigrants to the United States will learn English and become Americans. The discussion of the second generation ignores the fact that a growing number of immigrants are unable to speak English themselves, and that a rather significant gap exists between societal expectation and reality. Census data reveals that for some immigrant groups, less than half of the immigrants living in the United States are considered proficient in the language that will enable them to get better jobs, earn higher incomes and help their children advance to higher education.

The intended audience of promoting English acquisition is the immigrant his/herself, much like the intended audience for message promoting smoking cessation is the smoker him/herself.

Furthermore, when we are talking about fluency in English, a characteristic that the Urban Institute called “the most effective anti-poverty tool for working families” in the United States, 95 percent English acquisition is not an acceptable figure among the second generation. There are some startling facts about English fluency that run counter to the notion of English acquisition. According to the U.S. Census, there were more than two million native born Americans, age five and older, who spoke little or no English. That’s two million people born in this country, presumably raised and educated in this country, who speak English at the lowest levels of proficiency.

Finally, 95 percent is simply not a good enough figure to sit back and rest. We should be no more proud of a 95 percent English acquisition rate for the children of immigrants, than we would be about a 95 percent graduation rate or a statistic showing that 95 percent of the children of drug abusers don’t abuse drugs. In any of those cases, there is still a significant portion of the population that will be unable to reach its highest potential, and will be more likely to require government services.

3.I’m sure you have studied official language models worldwide. What countries, according to you, have the best approaches?

I have long been impressed by the Israeli adoption of Hebrew as the official language of the country, and the steps the nation takes to ensure that new residents are able to read, write and converse in this language.

4.How do you feel about Québec’s language legislation? How about the Canadian government’s bilingual approach?

As a citizen of the United States, I don’t have an opinion on the Canadian government language policy as it pertains to Canada. The linguistic and ethnic composition of Canada is unique and quite different from that of the United States.

On an academic level, however, I feel that understanding language policy in Canada offers lessons in how and how not to formulate a language policy here in the U.S. The experience in Canada offers examples of how language differences can result in social discord, increased expenditures, and pit one side against the other in an us vs. them mentality. I believe the Canadian policy shows several potential pitfalls the United States may endure should it opt to go officially or quasi-officially multilingual.

5.Québec’s language legislation went beyond the government and imposed some obligations to private businesses such as the language of commercial signs, the right to work in French and the right to be served in French. Would such measures be necessary in the US? Would they be possible?

The official English legislation proposed in U.S. Congress would not affect the rights of private businesses or business owners. Our legislation is exclusively focused on the language of government and government documents. Official English legislation has never been about preserving the language or the proper use of the language. Instead it is rooted upon the belief that English, however accented or pronounced, is the unifying factor in this diverse nation.

6. US English has been accused to be a polite and clean facade for anti-Mexican and anti-immigration sentiment. How do you feel about those accusations?

It is unfortunate that some individuals choose to stymie debate on the official language issue by mischaracterizing its supporters. In reality, many supporters of official English are immigrants or children of immigrants. In polls, first- and second-generation Americans demonstrate the same level of support for official English as do Americans of the third-generation and beyond. Furthermore, labeling the more than 80 percent of the nation that supports English as “xenophobic” is an extremely pessimistic view of the United States population.

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Written by angryfrenchguy

June 15, 2008 at 11:30 am

15 Responses

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  1. “On an academic level, however, I feel that understanding language policy in Canada offers lessons in how and how not to formulate a language policy here in the U.S. The experience in Canada offers examples of how language differences can result in social discord, increased expenditures, and pit one side against the other in an us vs. them mentality. I believe the Canadian policy shows several potential pitfalls the United States may endure should it opt to go officially or quasi-officially multilingual.”

    Obviously..this trilingual US citizen of record doesnt agree with policies in Canada such as the OLA…and other such programs of division..he could be right in what he has stated… a pitfall…and where are we in Canada right now…? Note he has stated this from a personal (academic) point of view and not one of politics between the US and Canada which he has specifically excluded.



    June 16, 2008 at 11:51 pm

  2. It is great when people know other languages and other cultures, but come on, we are living in the U.S.A., where the official language should be English. If you go to France, the official language is French. Now, there are alot of people speaking English, but you will be better off if you spoke French in France. I got fed up and tossed those politicians at brick at, and you can to.


    June 18, 2008 at 5:17 pm

  3. I guess what the angry french guy is saying is that Canada should have one official language, English.

    Thanks for making that clear AFG

    Not so angry-english-guy

    June 24, 2008 at 3:05 pm

  4. AngryFrenchGuy, do you *really* want to go there? These English-only types in the States really are xenophobes of the Lou Dobbs school. I would pick my allies a little more carefully if I were you. The narrow nation-state ethnic nationalism that yearns for uniformity within political boundaries is always ugly, but with these guys it’s completely gratuitous.

    To be honest, as much as I’m fanatically in favour of pluralism, there’s more of an argument for making Quebec completely French than for making the USA completely English. There is not even a shadow of a chance that English will disappear from California, Arizona, and New Mexico in the next 200 years. It may be that many generations of Latin American immigrants will remain trapped in Spanish-language linguistic ghettos there, but that will have precisely zero affect on non-Hispanics, even if it puts the immigrants (and maybe their great-grandchildren) at a disadvantage. Which is not, I believe, the substance of francophone Quebeckers’ paranoia vis-a-vis the anglos.

    le Marquis de Retour

    June 29, 2008 at 12:11 am

  5. Incidentally, your interviewee’s reasoning is precisely that of Lord Durham! That great hero of Quebec history, whose gigantic bobble-head doll was inexplicably missing from the Fête Nationaliste parade! Gad, it’s like Nehru quoting Kipling — as he did on one occasion, believe it or not: “Who dies if India live?”

    le Marquis de Retour

    June 29, 2008 at 12:14 am

  6. What makes you think I support Mr. Mujica or his organization?

    It’s an interview. It’s his opinions.

    It’s only about bringing in other perspectives into our debated before we axphysiate on our own ignorance.

    (And anybody from Québec knows very well that the fact that the big self-righteous Canadian and American media call you a bigot and a xenophobe probably mean that you are exactly the opposite.)


    June 29, 2008 at 10:13 am

  7. […] E. Mujica, a naturalized US citizen born in Chile who speaks fluent English, Spanish and French. Pluribus what??? – common language is a unifying force in this process, and […]

    usa official language

    July 25, 2008 at 7:08 am

  8. Israel actually posts all their signs and labels almost all of their products in Hebrew, Arabic and English. To graduate high school, you need to pass an English proficiency exam. Their most prestigious university (Hebrew U.) is in English.

    They have a 20% Arab population whose first language is Arabic, and yes most of these people speak Hebrew too, but Israel is NOT a country that has Hebrew as the sole language. It is probably one of the few countries where you can get high level employment without speaking much Hebrew – there are a ton of Americans working there, much like many fairly unilingual anglophones get work in Montreal.

    I don’t think language laws should affect your ability to access your basic human rights. When you call 911, when you are charged with a crime, when you are trying to vote – you should have access to documents or service in several languages. In America, this should include Spanish. In Quebec, it should be English, French and others – maybe Italian, Portuguese and Chinese. In Israel, when you call a helpline the language options usually include Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, French and maybe more!

    Canada and the USA should provide way more free language classes to immigrants, and people born in the country. If you want anglos to learn French in Quebec, offer free evening and weekend conversation classes near McGill, not just for immigrants but native born Canadians too.


    August 2, 2008 at 4:22 pm

  9. The self-hating Mr. Mujica, like most US folks, conveniently forgets that Spanish is not an immigrant-community language (although there’s nothing wrong w this). Spanish is, as much as French in Canada, a HISTORICAL and living language in the US. In fact it was the first European language spoken on what is now US territory. The oldest city in the US mainland is (was) a Spanish city: San Agustín de la Florida (1565). States like New Mexico have actually had a significant population that is Spanish-speaking for almost a half century. Half of the US toponyms are Spanish.

    The ‘Nuevo Mexicanos’ (most of them of Spanish blood), along with many native peoples in that state, were dispossesed by the Anglo invaders, and discriminated in their own land. However, they held on to their language and vibrant culture. I hope some day they will wake up and claim what is rightfully theirs, like the Quebecois have done.

    Knowing the Anglos, one needs to have a firm hand or they will come and take over, it’s their nature… just look at Florida and all of the US Southwest: stolen by the US.

    The US should be smarter and embrace their multilingualism, or at least their bilingualism with historical peoples, like the Spanish in New Mexico.


    November 17, 2008 at 1:13 pm

  10. The Hispanic New Mexicans that I have met are of mixed Spanish and Native descent (“mestizo”).

    During his campaign, President-elect Obama recommended that Americans see to it that their kids learn Spanish. He himself apparently cannot hold a conversation in that language, however.

    I know of no statistics concerning English-Spanish bilingualism in this country among non-Hispanics, but my guess would be that fewer than one percent of us can conduct a conversation in Spanish.

    Just as an anecdote, my own Spanish isn’t any great shakes, but Hispanics here have on several occasions expressed surprise upon dicovering that I can more or less communicate with them in their home language.

    I don’t see things changing here very soon when it comes to language. Half or more of the Hispanic population here claims to be fluent in English, and English is necessary in the workplace just about everywhere. What it comes down to is that there just isn’t that much incentive for most of us to learn Spanish, unfortunately.


    November 21, 2008 at 8:17 am

  11. English First-ers are xenophobic, small minded and selfish.

    The English language is not threatened anywhere in the US. Rather it is a question of what immigrants should be forced to do. The question isn’t even “Does the state have an obligation to provide essential services to immigrants in a language they can understand?” This is not the case in the US.

    The platform is simple: ” Screw em if they can’t learn English. This is the US”.

    The currently existing alternative is “OK we can try to provide some essential information in the native languages of our largest immigrant populations where English may not be spoken by every family member, but we’re not obliged.”

    Why make laws to intentionally disenfranchise the weakest, poorest segment of your society? It is mean spirited.


    November 29, 2008 at 5:46 pm

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    December 19, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Take It Or Leave It. I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture. Since the terrorist attacks on 9/11, we have experienced a surge in patriotism by the majority of Americans.. ‘

    ‘This culture has been developed over two centuries of struggles, trials and victories by millions of men and women who have sought freedom’

    ‘We speak mainly ENGLISH, not Spanish, Lebanese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language. Therefore, if you wish to become part of our society . Learn the language!’

    ‘Most Americans believe in God. This is not some Christian, right wing, political push, but a fact, because Christian men and women, on Christian principles, founded this nation, and this is clearly documented. It is certainly appropriate to display it on the walls of our schools. If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture.’

    ‘We will accept your beliefs, and will not question why. All we ask is that you accept ours, and live in harmony and peaceful enjoyment with us.’

    ‘This is OUR COUNTRY, OUR LAND, and OUR LIFESTYLE, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about Our Flag, Our Pledge, Our Christian beliefs, or Our Way of Life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great American freedom, ‘THE RIGHT TO LEAVE’.’

    ‘If you aren’t happy here then LEAVE. We didn’t force you to come here. You asked to be here. So accept the country YOU accepted.’

    Jay Draiman

    March 15, 2009 at 1:44 pm

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