English should be America’s national and official language.   


By Richard K. Munro, MA

Ilan Stavans wrote in a recent WSJ article “How We the People Built American English (March 3, 2023) that Theodore Roosevelt was on his deathbed when he “announced there was only one language for Americans and that was the English language.”  Stavans  gives the impression that TR was an “English-only” monoglot when in fact TR though an American nationalist was a multilingual cosmopolitan thinker.   TR was fluent in German and French and could get by in Portuguese and Spanish.  But TR was aware of the dangers of a chaotic polyglot society and for that reason, he felt English should be America’s national and official language.     In his book, The People’s Tongue on which his essay was based Stavans asserts that Proposition 227 was passed in 1998 “eliminating the teaching of students in any language other than English.”   This assertion, which has been made many times by opponents of Official English is false.  Prop 227 had no effect on the teaching of Foreign Languages (a requirement in California high schools) or Dual Immersion k-6 schools with parental permission.  A well-known example is the Sherman Academy in San Diego.     Official English is not English-only and allows for flexibility on the federal, state and local level.

TR was aware of the constitutional implications of a romantic bilingualism or multilingualism that could lead to separatism, inter-ethnic violence even civil war.   E. D. Hirsch has noted “multilingualism enormously increases cultural fragmentation, civil antagonism, illiteracy, and economic-technological ineffectualness.”    Some bilingual societies have been successful or reasonably successful. We have the example of the Roman Empire, the Vatican,  Finland and the Aland Islands,   Switzerland , Canada,  Belgium, Malta, Philippines, India, South Africa and Spain. The European Union has 24 official languages.   English remains an official EU language despite the fact the UK has left the EU.   The EU embraces official multilingualism and therefore has no one official language for its laws or constitution.   This is a critical problem for  EU because there is no  universal agreement on translations and interpretations. The Vatican has Italian and Latin as official languages but the Church produces liturgical texts in Latin, which provide a single clear point of reference for translations into all other languages.  Less successful bilingual/multilingual states over time include the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Sri Lanka, Ruanda, Lebanon, Cyprus,  Kenya and the Ukraine. 

Diane Ravitch wrote of America as “a society that is racially diverse requires…a conscious effort to build shared values and ideals among its citizenry.”  This should include the recognition that English is and should be our official national language.    These shared values of America’s Union will be forged by our public and quasi-public institutions, which include our military, our sports, our houses of God, our press and media, voluntary organizations. our jury box and courthouse as well as our schools. The language of the rule books, Federal courts and juries must be in English (though of course interpreters can be used when necessary).  In addition, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, contracts, official documents, our laws and constitutions must be in English (though translations can be provided).    

So “official English” does not mean “English only.”  States may use other languages or translations for public safety.   States, even states with official English, may offer DMV tests in multiple languages if they choose.  The states and federal government can allow and encourage dual immersion schools and the teaching of foreign languages.   Denny’s can offer (voluntarily) menus in as many languages as it likes so as to welcome tourists and others.  

However, we as a society must be aware of the costs of official bilingualism/multilingualism both monetary and political. We dare not take our freedom, our prosperity, and our national unity for granted. America’s democratic pluralist experiment continues but it may yet be defeated if we do not exercise care.   Even Stavans says  “to create a nation, you need a language. “ The USA is an English-speaking nation and we should enshrine this fact nationwide in law.     This is why Pro English supports making English our official national language.

Richard K. Munro, MA

Teacher of  Spanish, English and history

Member of the Board of Pro English.


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