The ongoing debate about illegal immigrants and immigration reform in the U. S. has sourced many interesting questions over recent years – some of which are unrelated to subjects such as health care, social security, jobs and the economy. Instead, the debate over immigration has led some people to propose that the United States adopt Spanish as a second official language.
This is a controversial issue for many. English has been the de facto language of the United States since the country’s founding, but contrary to what most people think, the U.S. does not have an official language.
The first attempt to make English the official language of the country dates back to 1780 when founding father John Adams proposed it to the Continental Congress.
At the time, the United States was a fledgling nation made up of immigrants that spoke a variety of languages, so Adams’ proposal was rejected in favor of no official language. Declaring an official language was deemed counter to the concept of democracy and that of individual liberty by the other founding fathers.
In the time since the nation’s founding, English has become the dominant language spoken in the United States. Legislators have tried, during this time, to get an official language declared, but arguments essentially the same as those of the founding fathers succumbed the measures each time.
Proponents of declaring an official language point to other nations such as Sweden, the Netherlands and Nigeria, all of which have adopted English as an official language, as still being open, tolerant and accommodating towards others languages spoken by their citizens. That is, they contend that the U.S. declaring official languages won’t harm the essence of democratic co-existence between the native population, immigrants and their descendants, as exemplified by these other countries.
Government Services by Language
Both sides agree that declaring official languages would only mostly affect the provision of government services, such as 911 emergency services and federal documents released to the public.
As it stands right now, by not having a defined official language on a federal level, the federal government does not restrict access to services by language, but would do so if official languages are declared, as is the case with the official languages of English and French in Canada. Canadian government services are only provided in the two languages.
At the same time, however, individual states within the United States are free to set official languages that can benefit their specific populations. Already, certain states, such as California, New Mexico and Texas, through convention and law, respect Spanish as an official second language and provide state information and services in both English and Spanish.
The Spanish Boom
The movement to declare Spanish an official language of the United States has gained momentum. Spanish is not only the second most used language in the world, with the total of Spanish speakers worldwide consisting of 472 million as of 2016, it is the second most common language in the United States after English, with over 41 million people aged 5 or older speaking it at home in the U.S as of 2015, the United States Census Bureau attests.
According to the government agency, there are more Spanish speakers in the U.S. than there are speakers of French, Hawaiian, Chinese and Native American languages combined, which further strengthens the case of Spanish deserving to be declared a second official language of the United States.
In the U.S. state of New Mexico, 47% of the population speaks the language as of 2011. It also has strong representation in cities such as Los Angeles, Miami San Antonio, New York City, and in the last ten years, the language has grown quickly in Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix, Houston, Cleveland, Baltimore, Atlanta, Boston, Richmond, Washington, DC, and Missouri.
Clearly, Spanish is very prevalently used in the U.S. and declaring it the official second tongue would enable Hispanic people to communicate more easily in the country, particularly in government positions and common work places, say the measure’s proponents.
Further, because people have rights to “life, liberty and happiness” as declared in the Constitution, the government has to satisfy the second largest ethnic population in the United States and make communicating with Spanish-speaking people – a large percentage of the population – easier, the measure’s proponents contend.
The Case for English
“English-only” advocates argue that Spanish doesn’t really have a future in the United States. Data exists indicating that immigrants today are making the leap to speaking English more quickly than past immigrants in U.S. history.
The young generations of immigrants (ages 5 to 17) on average learn to speak English over their parents’ languages by adulthood, stated Rubén G. Rumbaut, professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Research on Immigration, Population, and Public Policy at the University of California-Irvine, as was told to the Population Reference Bureau.
With each rising generation, more and more young descendants of immigrants are becoming English-only speakers, Rumbaut pointed out.
In a study evaluating more than 5,200 second-generation children of immigrants in the San Diego and Miami school systems, Rumbaut and Princeton University professor of sociology Alejandro Portes found that 99 percent spoke fluent English and less than one-third spoke the native tongue of their parents by age 17.
Rumbaut’s conclusion is that demography will naturally resolve the issue, which makes defining Spanish as an official language unnecessary within a few decades time, issue observers point out.
Indeed, appointing English as the only official language of the United States will accelerate assimilation and make it eventually easier for immigrant descendants to blend in with the greater English-speaking population of the United States, say English-only proponents. Because thirty-one states in the country already have some form of official English law, immigrants have been able to assimilate better to the mainstream population, they contend.
The Status Quo
In the end, as measures to establish English as the official language of the United States fail, and there is no current serious project to establish Spanish as a second official language, political leaders are largely content to leave things as they are and authorize the spending of millions in translation services to make government materials and services accessible to all citizens.
As immigrants continue to enter the country, however, the issue will continue to grow in importance and remains a hotly debated topic amongst Americans.