Senate Makes English National but not Official Language

If the United States Senate gets its way, English will be the national language of the United States. But not the official language.

The Senate voted Thursday to make English the national language of the United States. Sort of.

Moments after the 63-34 vote, it decided to call the mother tongue a “common and unifying language.” “You can’t have it both ways,” warned Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a fan of “national” but not “common and unifying.” Two dozen senators disagreed and voted for both as the Senate lumbered toward an expected vote next week on a controversial immigration bill.


Inhofe led the attempt to declare English the national language, a campaign he said began more than a century ago. The Oklahoma Republican quoted President Theodore Roosevelt as having said that among other things, those living in the United States “must also learn one language and that language is English.” “If you’ve got any rights now you’ve still got them under this amendment” added Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Democrats disputed that, and said the proposal would curtail rights established by an executive order President Clinton issued to extend language assistance to individuals not proficient in English. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada went further. “I really believe this amendment is racist. I think it’s directed basically to people who speak Spanish.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Inhofe replied. “I don’t think people will buy into it.” The Senate didn’t, including 11 Democrats who joined 53 Republicans to support the proposal.

Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., advanced the alternative that declared English to be a “common and unifying language.” It passed, 58-39, leaving the outcome of the symbolic debate uncertain.

A front page WaPo summary of the measures by Jonathan Weisman and Jim VandeHei notes,

The impact of the language amendment was unclear even after its passage. The wording negating claims to multilingual services appears straightforward. It also sets requirements that immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship know the English language and U.S. history. The amendment would require more thorough testing to demonstrate English-language proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and elements of U.S. culture such as the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem. But its author, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), made two last-minute changes that some opponents said would reduce its effect significantly. By stipulating that the English-only mandates could not negate existing laws, Inhofe spared current ordinances that allow bilingual education or multilingual ballots. By changing the amendment to label English the “national language” rather than the “official language” of the country, Inhofe may have lessened its symbolic power. “In my view, we had it watered down enough to make it acceptable,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the chief architects of the immigration bill.

“Watered down enough to make it acceptable” could be McCain’s motto.

Obviously, this is pure political symbolism, as there is no practical way not to provide Spanish language services with a population that is 12 percent Hispanic and growing.

Further, English is already our common and unifying language and shows no signs of becoming anything else. While the growing number of unassimilated Spanish speakers is worrisome in the short term, the problem of ethnic enclaves forming during massive immigration influxes is a recurring one in American history. Invariably, past groups have learned English by the second or third generation simply out of practical necessity. One can not climb very high on the United States economic ladder without a reasonable command of English.

That said, the idea this is “racist” is absurd and tiresome. For one thing, the vast number of Spanish speakers are caucasian. Moreover, encouraging people to speak the language that will help them integrate and prosper in our society is hardly the equivalent of forcing them to the back of the bus; quite the opposite, in fact.

I don’t mind occasional symbolic votes and the message here is ultimately a good one. Making command of the language and heritage of the country a requirement for citizenship is certainly reasonable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bindare4u says:

    When you say, ” While the growing number of unassimilated Spanish speakers is worrisome in the short term, the problem of ethnic enclaves forming during massive immigration influxes is a recurring one in American history.”, you fail to see the danger of such huge numbers coming in with a different language and culture. It is too many to be assimilated and we are creating a Quebec situation that won’t go away in a couple of generations. I think we have tipped the scales on this one and it won”t result in a “melting pot” as with the Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants. They didn’t seize national political power right off the bat, only local political power. This is unprecedented in our history.

  2. Ben There says:

    My wife of 52 years is Japanese. In the lead up to being issued a visa she was required to be able to read and speak a paragraph of English. This was as the Army put it “proof she would not become a burden to the country”. Don’t ask me. I didn’t make the rules, I just learned to adjust to them.

    She also required to complete and pass a medical examination. Any infectious disease such TB was a disqualifying factor.

    The immigrates need only to backstroke across the Rio Grande.

  3. legion says:

    While I’m not convinced this is racist, I am appalled that this is the sort of pathetic bread-and-circus crap the Senate chooses to waste its time on instead of actually doing its job… Does anyone really wonder why their polls are even lower than Bush’s?

  4. James Joyner says:

    legion: It ain’t ’cause of this. Dumb as it might be, this sort of thing is HUGELY popular.

  5. One can climb very high on the United States economic ladder without a reasonable command of English.

    I think you meant, “One cannot climb very high … ”

    I personally think the Constitution should be amended to establish English as the official language of the United States.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Don: Corrected. Thanks.

  7. English: Official language of Cameroon and Liberia, but not the U.S.

  8. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    In what language are the laws of this Nation written in? I believe the U. S. Constitution is written in English. If you go to schools in Mexico, they do not teach in English. Ergo, in this country we should not teach in Spanish. Why is there no Mexican language? It is Spanish. That is a European language.

  9. legion says:

    I’ve been trying to make sense of this from the articles… let’s see if I’ve succeded. It loosk like english being the ‘official language of the US’ means about as much as ACME being the ‘official sprocket of the NFL’…

    Although people cannot _demand_ services or documents in a foreign language, there’s nothing preventing gov’t entities from providing them in other languages, and no reversal of existing laws or programs currently providing foreign-language services. Is that pretty much it?

  10. Y M Matos says:

    “Invariably, past groups have learned English… out of practical necessity. One can not climb very high on the United States economic ladder without a reasonable command of English.”

    An immigrant comes to the US for the same reasons over and over without regards to date. The first immigrants arrived in search of freedom of choice of religion -among other things. Today, some immigrants arrive in the US so that they are able to excercise a right they did not have in their own country, such as the freedom to live (China: Law on Population and Family Planning, 2002; Mexico: Less violence, etc.)

    A first-generation immigrant will no doubt find it extremely hard to overcome the language barrier unless they attempt to communicate with individuals who speak only English on a constant and daily basis. Their children will undoubtedly adapt to the language at a much faster rate since they will pick it up from schools, television, and ‘hanging out’.

    The first-generation immigrant knows that they are “already at the bottom of the economic ladder”, but they are alright with this as long as they are providing a better future for their own children, especially if these parents are of age, which would, no doubt, make it more difficult to learn a new language.

    Undoubtedly, a better life, is what every State Senator’s ancestors must have wanted at one point or another, when they immigrated into the United States long ago. That is, unless these Senators can honestly say (tongue in cheek) that they, namely Inhofe, are ‘pure’descendants of the American Indians.

    My mother, in my eyes a first-rate-first-generation immigrant would not allow us to speak English in the home. Wise beyond her years, she knew that the language would come naturally to my sister and I outside the home. After nearly 20 years, my mother was able to overcome her language barrier, made thicker by feelings of humiliation as English speakers listening in on her attempts to practice the language would laugh amongst themselves because of her heavy accent. It is traumatizing enough not to be laughed at, sadly enough, some people harbor ignorance in their hearts and minds without realizing it.

    My mother now speaks both languages fluently -and I’ll bet anything that those that laughed at her still know only one language. Tsk. Tsk. We don’t call this the ‘land of opportunity’ for nothing! In my family, however, we seize opportunity by the entrails. I served my country, and served it well, I married someone who served our country even longer -who also immigrated to the US. I also graduated from college with honors and after retiring from the military, my husband made it a point to get a college degree -and did! I have the benefit of speaking two languages and am now working on a third, thus allowing myself a bigger selection of jobs in my field. I was born in the US. My mother is an immigrant and because of this I say proudly that it was my mother who taught me to respect myself, my life, and my country, and to always reach for the stars. I know of several English-speaking-only US citizens by birth that have ‘milked’ the government for years -and continue to do so… what’s funny (not) is that they ask for the Food-Stamps in the only language they know -English! Then go plop in front of the television to watch daytime soaps.

    Inhofe, a language, or lack thereof, does not make a person. It is qualities such as ambition, drive, self-respect, self-motivation. These things make a person. These qualities do exist as well in the minds and hearts of many immigrants who cannot speak the english language. Many immigrants who may never be able to overcome the language barrier in their own lifetime, however, they rise early to work and come home late that day to eat a decent meal bought with hard-earned money.

    America, that Senator Inhofe even considers wasting our hard earned money, taxed so that we pay for the making of a “common and unifying language” is absurd! Why, even if we all were to suckle off the same breast, we would not be ‘unified’. It is not a common language that will make a better people. It is a better government. One that looks out for the best interest of ALL people.

    However, if it is the language that must be changed, then at these meetings the Senators should start by bringing up such TRULY important matters as is that of our school systems, which should be be, by far, the most sound and important foundation in the lives of our children who will one day rule this country. Lord help us. Just a good campaign is not going to help. Forget the name and implement some real action. The No Child Left Behind Act. That really sounded good. Yet, that was the biggest piece of crap I have ever heard of. The only children not left behind were the one’s that went willingly. The children that actually made you work for your money are still where you left them. You may come talk to me anytime. I will show you one of these children.

    Rather than look the other way when ‘small’ changes take place with anything having to do with a child’s education, such as adding the word “ain’t” to dictionaries -thus (get this) incorporating it into our (ahem) English language (heh), let us suggest that these Senators use the meetings to find better ways of providing our school systems more resources, more pay, more help -and, of course, getting that word placed in travel guides only.

    This is where our hard earned tax money needs to go! Go ahead! Spend the day brainstorming a way to make the Teaching profession the highly respected and much coveted field that it used to be 20 or so years ago, I would gladly work overtime that it may become, once again, in the eyes and hearts of our children what they “want to be when they grow up.”

    FYI: I am not in the Education field. The people working to educate our children, however, have my deepest respect. I advocate for Education every chance I get because I know now, in hindsight, that my son could have benefited tremendously had there been more resources for troubled children, perhaps even pamphlets to educate the parent of a troubled child.

    When my energy was drained at the end of the day from dealing with my own three children, I tried to remember their teachers who had ten times more children, some probably as disrespectful as the come, however, the educators nonetheless educated them -some knowing they still had to care for their own children when they went home! Quite frankly the closest I have ever gotten to teaching has been as a substitute teacher. I quit after my second call when I dealt with a special needs child. Yes, educators have my sympathy as well.

    It is really frustrated when our government takes so much time and energy and wastes it on things that will never change us as a Nation. Educating our children, however, will!

    Note to self: Unvote for Inhofe.