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Fighting words: should English be the national language?

Listen up! A war of words is taking place throughout the country. Last May, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to an immigration bill that would declare English as the national language.

The proposal, which passed 63 to 34, wouldn’t bar the use of languages other than English. The amendment states that no one has the right to federal communications or services in a language other than English. Existing laws requiring that some government services be multilingual would remain intact. For example, non-English-speaking students would still have the right to multilingual education.

States, cities, and towns are adopting similar measures. Twenty-seven states declare English their official language, though they must comply with federal laws that require some multilingual services.


Some people say English-only laws promote assimilation of non-English speakers into U.S. society. Other people, however, say such laws are discriminatory.

Buena Idea

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) sponsored the federal amendment. He says it will help immigrants to learn English faster and to better their lives. “Speaking English well … is a guaranteed way for new immigrants to increase their earning potential and career options,” he wrote in an editorial in USA Today.

Inhofe believes that the U.S. government shouldn’t have to accommodate non-English speakers. “This nation decided long ago that you must know English to become a citizen. Thus, there is no reason to offer the government’s citizen services in foreign languages,” he added.

Jim Boulet Jr., of English First, a group that promotes English-only laws, thinks a national language would unite the country’s many ethnic groups. “This is a nation of immigrants, and we have enough problems understanding each other. Language is … one more thing to be divided by,” he told Current Events.


Mala Idea

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), however, thinks declaring English as the national language is “divisive.” At a recent Senate hearing, he said, “I really believe this amendment is [discriminatory]. I think it is directed … to people who speak Spanish.”

An editorial in The Daily Texan, seconds Reid’s opinion. “This isn’t about preserving English. It’s about eliminating Spanish,” it states.

Others say the requirement is unsympathetic to the hard lives many immigrants face. Ivon Veras, a 29-year-old Dominican who lives in New Jersey, thinks most immigrants want to learn English. “Some people have not been able to learn [English], but it’s because they have to work, they have to feed their families … and it becomes difficult,” he told The Record of Bergen County, N.J.

What do you think? Take part in an instant Current Events poll on this news debate at www.weeklyreader.com and make your opinion count!

Get Talking

What might be the purpose of having English declared the national language of the United States? What affect might that have on some immigrants in the United States?

Notes Behind the News

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of foreign born people in the United States reached nearly 36 million people in 2005. That’s up from 31 million people five years ago. Nearly half come from Latin American countries.
  • An estimated 31 million people speak Spanish at home. According to the Census Bureau, there are 5.2 million U.S. households in which all members have “at least some” or “a whole lot of difficulty” speaking English.
  • About 1.4 million people are enrolled in Speakers of Other Language classes, an increase from 1.1 million in 2000. Those classes are subsidized by state and federal governments. According to the National Council of State Directors of Adult Ed, there are waiting lists for those classes in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Not all states report to the organization.
  • In 1906, Congress passed legislation requiring people seeking to become naturalized citizens to demonstrate oral English fluency. In 1950, the requirement was strengthened to require people to demonstrate an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language.

Doing More

Could your students pass the U.S. naturalization test? Have them take this online quiz to find out: www.factmonster.com/quizzes/citizenship1/1.html

Discussion Web

Name– Date —

Read the News Debate on page 3. Now consider the question in the center of this page. On the lines at the left and right, give reasons that some people might answer YES and NO. Write as many reasons as you can to support each side. Then decide how you feel about the issue. Write your opinion in the box labeled CONCLUSION.

Should English be the national language of the United States?