World Facts

What is the Official Language of the United States?

The United States technically has no official language.

The US is one of the linguistically diverse countries in the world. Historically, approximately 500 languages have been spoken in the country with English as the widely used language. Spanish is the second-most popular language in the country. In fact, the New Mexico state government uses Spanish to offer services and documents. There are also several languages native to the US. American Sign Language is used by approximately 500,000 people. The top five languages spoken in the country are English, Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. Despite the many languages spoken in the US, the country does not have an official language. English is only a de facto primary language in the country.

Official Language Status

As stated above, the US does not have an official or national language at the federal level. However, English is considered the official language in 32 states in what has been referred to as “English-only movement.” 30 of the 50 states use English as the official language while Hawaii established both English and Hawaiian as the official language. Alaska recognizes 20 indigenous languages alongside English as official languages. English is also one of the official languages of the territories of the US.

English is the sole language for legislation, regulation, and court rulings. However, the law requires that some documents such as ballots be printed in multiple languages in areas with large number of non-English speakers. English is also taught as a subject at every grade level, even in bilingual institutions. Cumulatively, there are over 230 million English speakers in the US. With over 35 million speakers, the US has the fifth-largest number of Spanish speakers in the world. Other sources estimate Spanish speakers in the country to be 50 million, second-largest after Mexico. Some people consider Spanish a national language and a contender for the official language should there be a need.

Why the US Does Not Have an Official Language

Neither the federal government nor the constitution of the US gives a reason as to why the country does not have an official language. However, several reasons have been put forward as to why this is so. The country is diverse and has large populations speaking different languages. Thus, declaring one language as the official language is not practical and ignores the historical and current linguistic diversity of the US.

The absence of an official language is considered a natural way of promoting and preserving the native languages and cultures. Forcing people into one common language, especially in a diverse country as the US may be perceived as telling the people to forget their heritage and tradition.

There has been an attempt to make English the official language without success. In 1780, a proposal was presented to the Continental Congress by John Adams to declare English the official language but his proposal was deemed a threat to the individual liberty. The debate has been going on since then with the issue still far from any resolution. There have also been talks to make Spanish an official language alongside English, although the talk and suggestions have not been as intense as making English the official language.

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