The Case For One American Language

Stephen H. Unger
December 20, 2012

In the Tower of Babel story, a large number of people, all speaking the same language, are working together harmoniously to construct a magnificent structure. Then God decides, for reasons not given in the story, to terminate the project by suddenly introducing a multiplicity of languages, each spoken by a distinct subset of the people. The result is that what was originally a united group breaks up into a number of groups who go off to form different nations.

This suggests the following thought experiment. Suppose a large number of people are randomly distributed in a large room. Assume they varied greatly with respect to race, physical appearance, age, occupation, and ability in various respects. Further assume that each is fluent in exactly one of five different languages, and that they are free to intermingle at will. How are they likely to be grouped after perhaps an hour?

It seems obvious that clusters would be formed, each consisting of people speaking the same language. Groups might be further partitioned on the basis of other factors, such as age, but it is hard to imagine people intermingling with those they cannot talk to. Regardless of how much they may differ in age, race, or virtually any other characteristic, people can easily communicate if they speak a common language. People who do not speak a common language cannot easily communicate, regardless of how many other traits they may share. We cannot expect people to cooperate well at work, or socially, or politically, if they cannot talk to each other.

Why it is Important for Newly Minted US Citizens to be Competent in English

Along with other Americans, naturalized citizens can cast votes that help select government officials and affect public policies in many ways. Therefore, they should be able to evaluate intelligently the candidates, and arguments put forward in public discussions and debates. At least in principle they should be able to understand the arguments made by all parties. People unable to read and listen to arguments made in English, are restricted to communicating only with those speaking in their native languages. They will find it difficult to ally themselves politically with others who share their views but not their language. In general, fragmentation of the population on the basis of language is not conducive to the realization of the advantages of democracy.

US residents not competent in English will, in their personal lives, be seriously handicapped. For example, they will be greatly limited with respect to jobs that they can get. They will have difficulty in handling all sorts of commercial transactions, such as renting an apartment, or buying a car. Making friends may be difficult. Polls of newcomers to the US show that the great majority of them appreciate the importance of their mastering English.

Some History

The founding US settlers were preponderantly English speaking. Subsequently, British immigrants continued to dominate, with German speakers constituting the greatest number of non-English speakers. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was substantial immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.

Newcomers to the US from non-English speaking countries seldom were fluent in English, but their children, and even more so, their grandchildren, for the most part, mastered English. Exceptions were in small, isolated, usually rural, communities settled by people all sharing a common non-English language. Children of immigrants who attend public schools along with substantial numbers of American children easily learn English in less than six months.

Until about fifty years ago, there was never any question about English being the language of the United States. Altho this has never been expressed by federal law, 31 states have Official English laws [Official]. However, these state laws are seldom enforced.

During the last third of the twentieth century the previously accepted notion that people from other countries who wished to become Americans had to adapt to the language of the nation, was challenged, initially by Spanish speakers [Turbak]. It has been argued that to make English our official national language would constitute discrimination against those whose primary languages are other than English [Musfuut]. Let's look at one consequence of not treating English as the official American language.

For the 2012 elections, many NYC polling places were required by federal law [AP] to provide ballots in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Bengali. Los Angeles County voting precincts were required to provide ballots in Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Siamese, Tagalog, Hindi, Khmer, and Vietnamese [Registrar]. In addition to the ballots, instructional material pertaining to the elections also had to be provided in the various languages, and polling places had to be staffed with interpreters to assist voters.

The federal law [Civil] mandating the above (from 1975) applies to any state or political subdivision (usually cities or counties) where more than 10,000, or 5 percent, of the citizens of voting age consists of members of a language minority who are LEP (limited-English proficient), and where the illiteracy rate of the citizens in the language minority as a group is higher than the national illiteracy rate. Those eligible for this treatment are people of Spanish heritage, Asians, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives.

Why Do Some Naturalized Citizens Appear to Need Ballots in Foreign Languages?

Why can't naturalized citizens, who have, presumably, passed tests demonstrating their knowledge of English, read voting instructions, campaign statements, etc., and understand ballots in the English language? Why should they need ballots and other voting-related material in some other language?

If, indeed, the citizenship testing procedure did a decent job of ensuring that those who pass have knowledge adequate to allow them to function as US citizens, then there would be no need for foreign language ballots, interpreters, etc. An adult US citizen should be able to speak and understand English well enough to perform the important functions of voting, and serving on juries. However, there are good reasons to believe that the tests are far from being adequate.

The reading and writing tests are travesties [USCIS-2]. Applicants are given, sequentially, up to three short sentences to read. A typical example is, "Who was the third president of the United States?" They need only correctly read aloud one of these sentences in order to pass. For the writing test, examiners read aloud a simple sentence that the applicants are asked to write. Again, there are three chances to pass by getting one of them correct.

The civics test is a bit more substantial. Applicants are sequentially asked (orally) up to 10 questions, out of a publicly available list of 100, and are required to answer six of them correctly. The questions are a mix of trivia (e.g., "What color are the stars on our flag?) and some substantive questions (e.g., "Who has the power to declare war?")

In principle, since the exams are administered during the course of an interview conducted by an Immigration Department examiner, the candidate's competence in English is supposed to be determined at that time. The examiner does, in fact, have the power to rule that the applicant's command of English is inadequate. However, it appears that this seldom happens. In 2010, the pass rate for the English test was 97% and, for the overall naturalization process, it was 95.8% [Longley].

Since there is a perceived need for ballots and voting information in foreign languages for a substantial number of naturalized citizens, it follows that the standards for the citizenship tests are much too low. The problem is further exacerbated by regulations that exempt people from the English requirement altogether if, e.g., they are over fifty years old and have been US residents for over 20 years [USCIS-1]. Why would we want to grant citizenship to someone who, after two decades in the country has not learned its language?

What About Those Who Were Here First?

A substantial proportion of American Indians (including Alaskan natives) living in tribal areas, or on reservations, are not fluent in English. They are citizens and are, of course, entitled to vote. Clearly, they would be more able to vote intelligently if they understood English, and such understanding would also be beneficial to them personally in many ways.

But, unlike immigrants, they did not choose to come to the US. Their ancestors were the original inhabitants; the victims of European invaders. So, while every effort should be made to encourage them to learn English, and more should be done to help them do this, it would be wrong to try to force them to learn.

For those American Indians who do not wish to learn English, the 1975 law referred to above, which calls for voting material to be provided to them in their own languages, seems to me to be fully justified. A similar argument could be made for the Spanish speaking natives of Puerto Rico.

Countries with Multiple Languages

There are a number of countries in which there are a multiplicity of native languages. These include China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, and Canada. In some of these countries dozens, scores, or even hundreds of different languages are spoken. In all of them this is a source of discord. It promotes disharmony among the population, and endless squabbles about the circumstances under which the various languages must be used.

Language was an important factor in the splitting off of Bangladesh from Pakistan (along with the geographical separation of the two regions.) Friction between French and English speakers came close to causing a break-up of Canada in the 1990s [Harrison].

It is interesting that, while English is not, by law, the official language of the United States, it is virtually the international language, and does have special legal standing in several other nations where it is not a native language [Wikipedia-List]. E.g., in India, with hundreds of local languages, the official languages are Hindi and English, but the authoritative texts of all federal laws and Supreme Court decisions is the English version, courses in most schools are taught in English, and English is the language used almost exclusively in higher education. In Pakistan, where there are four widely spoken regional languages, most school courses are in English, and it is an official language (the other is Urdu) used in business, government and law. English is the official language of Nigeria, which has over 500 native languages. It is a second language in many other countries; e.g., over 85% of Norwegians and Swedes speak English.

Importance of Learning the National Language

Americans benefit in various ways from the diverse origins of past generations. Literature, science, athletics, the arts, are all enriched by contributions from people representing virtually the entire world.

But this is true only to the extent that people from these different cultures intermingle. If those whose forebears came from different countries are isolated from one another by the lack of a common language, then the benefits of cultural variety are largely illusory.

How to Learn a Language

There are a number of different ways to learn a language. In my experience, conventional language courses were not very effective. Despite having had a pretty good teacher, I certainly did not master German as an undergraduate, tho a few years later, a one-semester course in scientific German with another good instructor got me thru the exam required for my doctorate. Same for French. But I retained very little knowledge of either language. There are other approaches that seem superior.

Many years later, on a sabbatical leave for a year at the Technical University of Denmark, I was able to learn enough Danish on my own, mainly from books, to read some Danish history books. But my conversational skill did not go beyond halting interchanges with small children, and once with a "gas og vand meister" ("gas and water master", or plumber).

My daughter and son, 7 and 11 years old, respectively, when we arrived, did a great deal better. They attended a public school, where, except for some minimal instruction while their classmates were in English classes, they received no formal instruction in Danish. But, as a result of immersion amongst Danish classmates (and, soon, friends), they became fluent Danish speakers in three or four months, also learning to read Danish.

Later, as an Earlham College undergraduate, my daughter enrolled in a program that entailed living with a family in Mexico for a semester. She acquired a mastery of conversational Spanish that proved useful later when, as a psychiatric social worker, she counseled Dominican clients who spoke little or no English.

Some years later, she and her anthropologist husband, an American who used Spanish in his research in Mexico, decided to raise their children with Spanish as their first language. From birth, they spoke only in Spanish to the girls, who, naturally, when they began talking did so in Spanish. Before the elder of the two turned eight, they had both attended kindergarten or an early grade in a school in Mexico, intermingling before and after school with Mexican children. Their oral ability in Spanish compared favorably with that of Hispanic children of their ages, and they had no difficulty learning to read Spanish.

Subsequently, once back in the US (Bloomington Indiana), they rather rapidly picked up English in school, and while playing with other children. The problem then became (and remains now when they are 7 and 9) to get them to retain their Spanish. There are relatively few Spanish speaking children or adults for them to mingle with; their parents are the principal Spanish speakers that they encounter. An important tool for helping them retain their Spanish is the DVD. They are being supplied at home with entertaining short cartoons and other dramatic material in this form, all in Spanish. A good collection of children's books in Spanish is also helping. Both are doing exceptionally well in English, reading far ahead of their grade levels. It is interesting that the sisters seldom talk to each other, or to their parents, in Spanish.

My son took a different approach to refining his Spanish language skills. He was so pleased with what he learned in a Columbia University Spanish course, and so eager to learn more, that he married the instructor. Altho this might appear to be a rather extreme move, it turned out to be a very happy one.

The Old Country

When the "melting pot" concept was widely accepted, immigrants sought to adapt themselves to their new country, striving to learn the language and customs. While there were some enclaves where immigrants grouped themselves with others from the same homeland and tended to retain their old languages and ways, in most cases, they were eager to become Americans. Their children usually accomplished this rapidly once they started attending the public schools.

In a sense, the process sometimes went a bit too far, in that many people felt that, not only should they learn American customs and speech, but that they should also forget, and not encourage their children to remember, the language and culture of their country of origin. That is too bad, since knowledge of foreign languages is useful, and American culture is enriched by exposure to the music, literature, etc. of other countries. (Note tho, that there are also aspects of foreign cultures that are best forgotten. Indeed many immigrants come here precisely to escape from them.) Unfortunately, as indicated above, efforts to correct this potential cultural loss have led to a movement erring in the opposite direction.

What Would Make Sense?

Unlike a number of other countries, the US is fortunate in that, except for a relatively small number of America Indians and Puerto Ricans, virtually all those native to the country speak the same language. It would be foolish to artificially create the sort of problems that plague those countries (some mentioned above) that do not have this advantage.

The critical point at which this matter must be addressed is in the enforcement of the requirement that a candidate for naturalization must master the English language to a degree adequate to vote intelligently and to serve on a jury. This means that the current standards for citizenship tests must be substantially raised and strictly enforced.

The idea that polling places must be organized to accommodate people who are LEP (limited-English proficient), should be abandoned (except for American Indians and Puerto Ricans), and the law appropriately changed. Instead, reasonable efforts should be made to help prospective new citizens acquire the necessary skill. In addition to increasing the availability of appropriate classes in English, such aids as tutorial DVDs might be provided.

Immigrant organizations might consider increasing efforts to help their members master English. They need to focus their attention on assisting adults, who often do need help learning a new language. There is ample evidence that children learn new languages easily from their peers with minimal support. Another natural function of these organizations, which I am sure they are already engaged in, is to help those who, while learning the language and ways of their new country, also want to retain various aspects of their native lands, including perhaps their ability to speak the language.

At most, schools might be asked to provide counsellors to help those learning English. Bilingual programs where the children of immigrants are segregated in classes where most subjects are taught in their original languages are not the best way to help them adapt to their new country. It is likely to slow the rate at which they learn English, since it isolates them from their English-speaking classmates.

The Bottom Line

Admitting to citizenship status millions of people not able to talk to other Americans is a bad idea that can only lead to trouble for all concerned. It is not the way to achieve an indivisible nation with liberty and justice for all.


AP, " Federal Government Orders Bilingual Ballots in 25 States Ahead of Elections", Associated Press, October 14, 2011

Civil Rights Division, "Bilingual election requirements", Civil Rights Division [search for "Bilingual" in this document.]

Lawrence E. Harrison, "Quebec Secession Revisited", The Christian Science Monitor, November 23, 1998

Robert Longley, "About the Test for US Citizenship: How Many Pass It?",, 2012

Mauro E. Mujica, "Why the U.S. Needs an Official Language", World and I, December 2003

Musfuut, "Language Rights Are Protected Under Civil Rights Law", Opposing Views, June 4, 2008

Official, "U.S. States with Official English Laws", Official English, 2012

Registrar, "Voting and Elections", Los Angeles County, 2012

Gary Turbak, "The Campaign Against English", Social Contract Journal, Spring 1994

USCIS-1, "Exceptions & Accommodations", US Citizenship and Immigration Services, 4/08/2011

USCIS-2, "The USCIS Naturalization Interview and Test Video", USCIS

Wikipedia-List, "List of countries where English is an official language", Wikipedia

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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