Constitutional Topic: Official Language
The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented
to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ
pages. This Topic Page concerns an Official Language for the United States.
No official language is mentioned or contemplated in the Constitution.
Many people are surprised to learn that the United States has no official
language. As one of the major centers of commerce and trade, and a major
English-speaking country, many assume that English is the country's official
language. But despite efforts over the years, the United States has no
Almost every session of Congress, an amendment
to the Constitution is proposed in Congress to adopt English as the official
language of the United States. Other efforts have attempted to take the easier
route of changing the U.S. Code to make English the official language. As of
this writing, the efforts have not been successful.
Here is the text of a proposed amendment. This particular bill was
introduced in the House of Representatives as H.J. Res. 16 (107th
The English language shall be the official language of the United States.
As the official language, the English language shall be used for all public
acts including every order, resolution, vote, or election, and for all records
and judicial proceedings of the Government of the United States and the
governments of the several States.
Also introduced in the 107th Congress was this text from H.R. 3333:
The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role
of English as the official language of the United States of America. Unless
specifically stated in applicable law, no person has a right, entitlement, or
claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or
representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide
materials in any language other than English. If exceptions are made, that
does not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or
any language other than English.
Often these bills are in response to legislation recognizing non-English
languages in public discourse of some kind. H.R. 3333, for example, also
explicitly repealed the Bilingual Education Act which authorized funds to
educate American students if their native tongue as well as to provide
specialized training in the learning of English.
The most recent efforts to promote English as the official language has come
as more and more immigration from Spanish-speaking and Eastern nations (such as
China and Vietnam) has brought an influx of non-English speakers to the
United States. According
to the 1990 Census, 13.8 percent of U.S. residents speak some non-English
language at home. 2.9 percent, or 6.7 million people, did not speak English at
all, or could not speak it well.
The ACLU, which is part of a group
opposed to establishing a national official language, has published a paper detailing reasons that
such a move should be opposed. It starts by mentioning an effort by John
Adams, in 1780, to establish an official academy devoted to English, a move
which was rejected at the time as undemocratic. The ACLU notes past efforts at
English-only laws that abridged the rights of non-English speakers or which
generally made life difficult for large non-English speaking populations. One
example cited in Dade County, Florida, where, after a 1980 English-only law was
passed, Spanish signs on public transportation were removed.
The ACLU believes that English-only laws can violate the U.S. Constitution's
protection of due process (especially in courts where no translation service
would be offered) and equal protection (for example, where English-only ballots
would be used where bilingual ones were available in the past).
English-only proponents like U.S.
English counter that English-only laws generally have exceptions for public
safety and health needs. They note that English-only laws help governments
save money by allowing publication of official documents in a single language,
saving on translation and printing costs, and that English-only laws promote
the learning of English by non-English speakers. One example offered is that
of Canada, with two official languages, English and French. The Canadian
government itself has addressed
this issue, noting that in 1996-7, only 260 million Canadian dollars were
spent on bilingual services.
There has been at least one interesting contrast to the pro-English efforts.
In 1923, Illinois officially declared that English would no longer be the
official language of Illinois - but American would be. Many of Illinois'
statutes refer to "the American language," (example: 225 ILCS 705/27.01) though
the official language of the state is now English (5 ILCS 460/20).
According to U.S. English, the
following states have existing official language laws on their books: Alabama,
Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois,
Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri,
Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina,
South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming. A small handful date back
more than a few decades, such as Louisiana (1811) and Nebraska (1920), but
most official language statutes were passed since the 1970's.
The following are websites concerning Official English in the United
The following are websites concerning the official languages of other