Translation and Language Industry Observations

What is the Official Language of the USA?

Some of you are reading this question and are probably saying duh! The official language of the USA is English! English is also the lingua franca of the Internet and the financial world (Wall Street and The City of London). Anyone who has visited the USA can plainly hear English spoken everywhere. But is English the official language of the US? The answer surprisingly, is that the USA has no official language at all.

What is an official language?

An official language is not necessarily the language spoken by the majority of the population in a given country. If that was the case then certainly the official language in the USA would be English. An official language of a country is one that is decreed in an act of legislation by the government. An example of a country with official languages is Canada, which introduced the Official Languages Act (1969) which is the federal statute that made English and French the official languages of Canada.

Without an official language, the USA does not require citizens to learn or speak English at all. Immigrants with green cards can take the naturalization examinations in languages which are non-English. Amazingly, people can live, work and do business in the USA for a lifetime without speaking a word of English. Throughout the years, culturally diverse enclaves have been formed in the US. Many cities have a Chinatown in which shop fronts, street signs and newspapers are in Chinese. Little Italy was a neighborhood in New York where Italian immigrants lived and conducted their daily lives in Italian. The Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century was home to immigrants Jews from Poland and Lithuania who used Yiddish in their everyday lives. People that lived in these enclaves often had no incentive to learn or speak English. Indeed many US citizens lived their entire lives without knowing any English.

The English Language Unity Act of 2021

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore (words by Emma Lazarus, engraved on the Statue of Liberty)

Is cultural diversity in the USA a good thing? Is language diversity to be encouraged or discouraged? These are questions that the branches of government in the US have been debating for quite some time. Proponents feel that the USA was built on a foundation of immigration from all countries in the world. And therefore, language diversity should be encouraged. Also, as the Land of the Free, some people feel that the government should not impose any language restrictions on its citizens.

Opponents of language diversity object to the expense of translation and interpretation services which is done using taxpayer dollars. Because if the USA has no official language, people can conduct their business with the Federal government in any language and can expect to have their business heard. Opponents feel that naturalization exams should be conducted in English as a matter of national pride. And opponents feel that immigrants are not being integrated into US society, thus holding back the economy.

Numerous bills have been introduced, but none have passed Congress. That is why the USA has no official language. The latest attempt to make an official language by legislation is the English Language Unity Act of 2021. Will this bill be passed into law? Based on past attempts, it seems unlikely. Unsurprisingly, there is partisan division around this bill. Members of Republican party, a party which is known to be anti-immigration, would like to get this bill passed. Members of Democratic party, which is very pro-immigration, are opposed.

Relevant Reading

10 Most Commonly Spoken Foreign Languages in the USA

 

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3 Comments

    1. Thanks for your comment. You are correct in that some US states have made English the official language of the state. But strictly speaking, the USA has no official language since there is no legislation at the federal level.

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