Does America need an official language?


For several years now there has been a push by some to make English the official language of the United States.  As in the previous two sessions, Congress has a bill before it to make English the national language and to make it the common unifying language of the country.  Although public polls show support for this movement, others strongly criticize this effort.  As a multilingual and multiracial nation, they would prefer the United States either not adopt a national language or adopt several languages to reflect the diverse makeup of our country.


Visiting South Africa has provided me with a new lens to view this debate.  The South African Constitution recognizes eleven languages as official languages.  In addition, the government is required to “take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.”  The Constitution imposes this duty in recognition of the “historically and diminished use and status of the indigenous languages” of their people.  Language plays a pivotal role in forming a person’s personal and cultural identity.  Forcing a person to use a non-native language arguably takes away from who they are as a person.


Yet the goal of multilingualism, even if laudatory, has profound practical challenges.  In his excellent article (Vol 124 Part 1 The South African Law Journal page 84) )discussing the impact this language policy has on the court system, Dean Michael Cowling of the University of Natal at Pietermaritzburg addresses many of the competing policies at play.  United States’ policymakers would be well served to read his article and thoughtfully analyze these issues and concerns before making any decision on whether to adopt one or more national languages.


Some of the issues that need answers include: 

  • Would the courts translate the opinions in all official languages?
  •  How much would that cost?
  •  If a trial was conducted in one language, would the court record also be in that language? 
  • What happens if legal terms are not translatable in another language (many of the African indigenous languages are not as fully developed yet with respect to legal terms so there are no direct equivalents)? 
  • What about the problem of mistakes made in translations- which version of a law would a court use if there are differences between them?
  •  Should we have a bilingual language policy or a multilingual policy? 
  • Some black judges in South Africa argue court proceedings conducted in multiple languages would be “divisive, illusory, expensive, cumbersome and impractical” – would it be less in the United States if we had less than 11 official languages?
  • Can you really have freedom of expression and protect your individual liberty if you cannot speak in the language of your choice?
  • How do you practically promote multiple languages?
  • Should there be parity of all languages in legislation? Regulations? Printed material? Education? Road signs?
  • Should we alternate which language is used when reporting decisions or publishing laws as South African has done in the past with English and Afrikaans?
  • Fundamentally, is adopting English as a national language discriminatory or racist?
  • In the United States would English be the language of the oppressor as some see English and Afrikaans or is it different for us?
  • What reasons exist for giving enhanced status to English?
  • Who would regulate and monitor the official language?
  • Would multiple lawsuits result if we select one or more national languages?
  • Is it fair to have a civil law proceeding in a language that is not the mother tongue of either of the parties?
  • Will judges, practitioners (and thus law professors) need to be proficient in multiple languages?
  • What effective will decisions have on the world’s jurisprudence if they are not translated into English (would an opinion written only in isiZulu have any impact? Spanish?)
  • Whose mother tongue should be used? The judge’s? The litigants’? the attorney’s?
  • Even if multiple languages exist for other purposes is there any justification to only having one language for legal proceedings?

These are just some issues that need further analysis before deciding whether to have an official language(s).