Instituting Official Languages in the U.S.

Ella York - Teen Aspect - May 31st, 2022

What do you think of when someone mentions American culture? A specific musician may come to mind, or perhaps a dish that just screams red, white, and blue. The US is the host for so many important cultural institutions and trends, holding influence over the pop culture of the entire world. From television to the Internet, it’s clear that the US is a cultural powerhouse.


But the US was not founded on the hopes and dreams of the few; it has taken generations of people from diverse backgrounds to come together to form the wondrous melting pot that we know and love today. But despite being known as one of the most diverse countries in the world, the United States is far behind in regard to learning languages. The average American took two years of a foreign language class in high school twenty years ago and can scarcely say ‘Where is the bathroom?’ in another language. Yet in most other developed countries, the average citizen can speak at least two languages, usually more.


Americans have become spoiled; English has become the lingua franca of the world, with many people learning it as a second language. Yet Americans seem to struggle when it comes to learning other languages. Since English is the de facto language of the United States, many Americans don’t see the need to become multilingual. This ‘language laziness’ has led to Americans becoming the punchline in jokes made by other countries targeting our ignorance. And frankly, I can’t blame them.


So, what’s the solution to a problem borne of our own inherent entitlement?


The institution of multiple official languages in the United States could be the perfect solution.


First off, we should establish the difference between a de facto language and an actual official language. A de facto language is simply that, the language most commonly used in a country. However, a language being the most commonly used doesn’t mean that it is designated as an official language. An official language has to be legally recognized by a government as the language in which all public documents and other government dealings are to be done in. Most developed countries in the world have at least one official language, with the majority having more than one.


The use of multiple official languages has been proven to be extremely useful in countries with high levels of development. One great example of this is Switzerland. Approximately 62% of the Swiss population speaks German, and around 23% speak French (Switzerland Federal Council, 2021). And yet, Switzerland has been able to use these differences in language to make them stronger. Multilingualism is a major part of the Swiss identity. In fact, over 40% of the Swiss population over the age of 15 communicates in more than one language on the regular (Switzerland Federal Council, 2021). Instead of letting this seemingly divisive factor push the country apart, they’ve embraced multilingualism as a way to strengthen the entire state.


Switzerland’s multilingualism isn’t an isolated occurrence either; another great example of a multilingual state is India. With over 20 official languages, it seems impossible for India to be as organized as it is (Conrad 2020). Yet despite the sheer number of these languages, India has managed to structure their legal system efficiently around language barriers. Most of India’s languages are only spoken in specific regions, being tied to specific ethnicities that are located in distinct areas. This pseudo-isolation of different languages has greatly reduced conflict, yet presents another issue: how are various regions supposed to communicate?


Luckily, one of the most prevalent languages, Hindi, with over 37% of the population able to speak it, has become the unifying language of the country (Conrad, 2020). This way individuals can retain their cultural roots by speaking their language within their region but can still communicate with the rest of the country through the collective use of Hindi. It’s the perfect balance of retaining cultural identity while also being practical with communication.


Getting back to the US, it’s important to recognize that there are many unique cultures that claim the land of the free as their own. The United States is a country founded by immigrants, and it’s important to recognize that we are only strengthened by our distinct backgrounds. By establishing multiple official languages, we can help to foster an appreciation of different perspectives in the next generation.


The next step in deciding to institute official languages is to chose which languages to designate as ‘official’. The only logical way to make this decision is to look at the most frequently spoken languages in the US. Unsurprisingly, English is the most common in the US, with approximately 77% of the population speaking it at home (Lyons 2020). Spanish comes in at number two, with around 13% of the population being fluent (Lyons 2020). Chinese (including Cantonese and Mandarin) is ranked at number 3, and Tagolog as number four (Deshmukh, 2021).


Naturally, these are the languages that we should designate as official languages.


However, there are those who would argue that the US doesn’t need official languages, and that such legislation would be irrelevant. I believe that such a point is ignorant and uninformed. The fact of the matter is, regardless of your personal opinions, the United States is far behind when it comes to language education. I may sound like a broken record, but for how high the US is ranked on the Human Development Index, it’s amazing how far behind we are in regard to multilingualism (United Nations Development Programme, 2020). By instituting official languages, we would be promoting all citizens to learn another language, not just those who don’t know English.


This wouldn’t be the only example of a government promoting the use of minority languages while still retaining a healthy use of its de facto language. The UK has actually passed legislation encouraging the use of nearly extinct languages such as Cornish, with only around 2,000 speakers (Delvin, 2018). Yet when you visit the United Kingdom, the language that most people use is still English. This shows how just because a smaller language is promoted, the use of another language is not inherently diminished. The idea that English is the de facto language of the US and the idea that multilingualism should be encouraged are two beliefs that can coexist.


By recognizing multiple official languages, the United States can grow and mature as a nation. We can encourage the average citizen to learn another language and can promote the ideals of the US as a nation of acceptance and strength. No longer will the stereotype of the ignorant American tourist hold any merit in reality, as we can become a country that is known for our collective intelligence and skill. It’s time for us to better ourselves so that we may better posterity.


References

Conrad, K. (2020, August 11). What languages are spoken in India? WorldAtlas. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-most-widely-spoken-languages-in-india.html

Delvin, T. (2018). Which are the most spoken languages in the United Kingdom? Babbel Magazine. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/most-spoken-languages-in-united-kingdom

Deshmukh Graphics/Design: , A. (2021, December 13). The most commonly spoken language in every U.S. state (besides English and Spanish). Visual Capitalist. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://www.visualcapitalist.com/most-common-language-spoken-in-the-u-s-map/

Human Development Reports, U. N. H. D. P. (2020). Human development reports. Latest Human Development Index Ranking | Human Development Reports. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://hdr.undp.org/en/content/latest-human-development-index-ranking

Lyons, D. (2020). What are the most spoken languages in the U.S.? Babbel Magazine. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/most-spoken-languages-in-the-us

Switzerland Federal Council. (2021). Language – facts and figures. Eidgenössisches Departement für auswärtige Angelegenheiten EDA. Retrieved May 15, 2022, from https://www.eda.admin.ch/aboutswitzerland/en/home/gesellschaft/sprachen/die-sprachen---fakten-und-zahlen.html


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