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Why English Isn’t the Official Language of the U.S. Federal Government

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that many residents of the United States speak a language other than English.

The National Virtual Translation Center puts the number of languages spoken in the US at 311. However, it may surprise you to learn that English isn’t even the official language of the Federal Government.


US official language

Photo Credit: Matt Northam

A Short History of Language in the U.S.

In 1780, John Adam’s proposal to the Continental Congress that English be made the official language of the U.S. was deemed, “undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty.” At the time, not only did the colonists have diverse native languages, but they also commonly spoke multiple languages, so picking just one language of the many spoken wasn’t a popular idea or even particularly necessary. Sadly, the language speaking capabilities of the U.S. have diminished over time, with only 18% of Americans speaking a language other than English. This is compared to 53% of Europeans, who report speaking two or more languages.

While English has come to dominate the U.S., the Government has still never declared an official language, despite the attempts of numerous politicians after John Adams. This is because the U.S. has always been a multilingual nation, though this hasn’t stopped many states from declaring English as their official language. However, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is in place to protect the rights of individual taxpayers who don’t speak fluent English. In order to receive federal funds, states must make sure that vital documents are made available in every language spoken by people receiving benefits subsidized by the Federal Government.

English Is Still the De Facto Language of the U.S.

Other than campaigners for the English Only movement, and a handful of politicians, most Americans continue going about their daily lives blissfully unaware that English isn’t the official language of their government, and who can blame them? After all, other than the changes to official U.S. documents, the fact that English isn’t the official language hasn’t stopped English from being the dominant language of the United States.

Did you already know that English isn’t the official language of the U.S. Federal Government, or did you learn something new today?

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