Why English Should NOT Be

America's Official Language


Larry Barnhart
June 1996


Conservative Arguments For Making English the Official Language

  Conservative arguments in favor of forcing language standardization can be classified in two main categories:

  The first argument says that there are limits to the amount of wealth available and that extending welfare around the world must lead to inevitable bankruptcy. This would include the extra expense of printing all government benefit information in many languages so that working people would be taxed even more than before. In a sense, this would mean a double-whammy -- greater advertising costs so more people would know about and be able to take advantage of welfare and other benefits. Arguing from the limited wealth paradigm, conservatives conclude that such a heavy load of welfare expenditures (that only rewards society with more dependency) cannot bode well for the economic future of America.

  The next argument says that many other cultures are not progress prone and that much of their poverty is the natural result of their cultural values and mores. Being of a strong religious identification, many conservatives echo Max Weber: "The God of Calvinism demanded of his believers not single good works, but a life of good works combined into a unified system. There was no place for the very human Catholic cycle of sin, repentance, atonement, release, followed by a renewal of sin." 1 This contrasts with Lawrence E. Harrison's description of Brazil and other Latin American countries: "The moral flexibility of traditional Iberian Catholicism is reinforced by familism, which sanctifies a double ethical standard for dealing within the family, on the one hand, and with the broader society, on the other." 2 In short, it is hoped that by forcing people to change their language, they will change their cultural values and mores as well.

Liberal Arguments Against Making English the Official Language

  Whereas most conservatives see limitations to wealth, liberals typically do not recognize such limits. Consider this pronouncement by Barbara Ward: "Today resources exist in such abundance that a world-wide extension of the principle of welfare is physically possible. All that is lacking is the political decision to do so. Is it possible that a society which boasts of its humanity and its Christian inspiration should ignore the challenge? Is it conceivable that such a society, having done so, should deserve to survive?" 3 This, of course, sets a pretty high standard of charity for the Western world to aspire to.

  Another liberal argument against making English the official language is based on the theory of Cultural Relativism which says that all cultures are of equal value and that no one from another culture has a right to make value judgments. Bill Pliat, the author of Only English?: Law & Language Policy in the United States, speaks of the "right" to language. Preserving language is necessary in order to preserve culture. To illustrate, he quotes Edward Sapir as follows: "Language is not merely a more or less systematic inventory of the various items of experience which seem relevant to the individual, . . . it is also a self-contained, creative symbolic organization, which not only refers to experience largely acquired without its help but actually defines experience for us by reason of its formal completeness and because of our unconscious projection of its implicit expectations into the field of experience." 4

  It is here that we find an interesting agreement among conservatives and liberals. Both agree that our world view is created and maintained in large part due to assumptions about reality that are conveyed by language unconsciously and implicitly.

  While conservatives want to force a language change in order to change people's world views "for the better", liberals want to preserve language in order to preserve corresponding world views which are said to be part and parcel to cultural diversity -- in other words, culture is good simply because it is culture (except, perhaps, Western culture).

Prevailing Arguments Summed Up

  For all the other disagreements conservatives and liberals might have, they both agree that government force is the best way to solve human problems. Conservatives agree with liberals that government force should be used to insure that enough charity is being doled out by the otherwise uncompassionate masses.

  Liberals, seeing wealth creation as an accidental phenomenon, assume that charity should be extended to all takers without question. The idea that some individual behavior patterns and cultural mores are more effective in creating wealth than other behavior patterns and cultural mores is thought to be insulting and demeaning. Consequently, their solution is to force those who are capable of creating wealth to subsidize those who, for whatever reason, are not.

  Conservatives, while agreeing that charity should be funded and administered by government force, do not agree that wealth creation is an accidental phenomenon. They proudly proclaim that certain behavior patterns and cultural mores are better for creating wealth. Therefore, in order to keep those who are capable of creating wealth from being "eaten alive" by those who are not, their solution is to force people to adopt behavior patterns and mores that are more conducive to wealth creation.

A New Approach to the Debate

  While my conclusion regarding English only laws is the same as liberals' conclusions, I have reached it for a different reason.

  It is one thing to use government force to keep predators of the two-legged variety from plundering the working masses -- it is yet another for an elite group to use government force to impose their vision of an ideal society on everyone else. We would do well to heed Eric Hoffer's warning when he described an intellectual as "a self-appointed soul engineer who sees it as his sacred duty to operate on mankind with an ax." 5

  Thomas Paine elaborated on this issue quite pointedly: "Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promoting happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. ". . . Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a Government, which we might expect to suffer in a country without a Government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer." 6 In short, if people choose lifestyles that are less productive than Western cultural ideals, so be it. As long as the rest of society is not forced to subsidize other peoples' choices, they should have the right to make those choices. In fact, there is much talk about how people in Western culture might benefit from not defining wealth in such narrow material terms.

  Also, it is true that a common language spread out over a large land mass will naturally improve the processes of production and distribution. But, like other such ideals, are they so important that people rights and dignity should be sacrificed on the alter of those ideals?

  I find Chinese and Vietnamese communities to be representative of how things might run were we to allow the rest of society of operate by the same principles. These communities have many people who do not wish to speak English. In exchange for this luxury, they accept a lower standard of living because they must hire themselves out to business owners who have learned English and are able to communicate with the larger community. While I am sure that all is not sweetness and light, they do sort themselves out, and they are rewarded by the market accordingly.

  Additionally, the Western cultural experiment is not the only useful model. People from Japan and the rest of the Orient are not slouches by any means. In fact, they have been known to look down on America’s decadence and decline. Being somewhat lazy myself, I am glad that I do not have some Samurai warrior pointing a sword at my back and demanding that I be more prosperous. Instead, I am happy to drive the superior automobiles they make which require less work to own and maintain, and further supports me in my lazy lifestyle.

  Overall, life is one big experiment. As other species have many variations according to different climates and circumstances, so does the human specie. Within the human specie are 5 billion-plus individuals with different values. Some want to work hard to acquire much material wealth. Others want to live simply and to enjoy more free time. Why shouldn't they all be allowed to live according to their own values so long as the consequences of their choices are not forced on others who have different values?

  In short, different cultures and languages should not be censured, nor should they be subsidized. This approach would mean much less government to support and less regulations to print in one or a number of languages. (Besides, who better than the community leaders are qualified to determine what languages laws should be published in.)

  The 14th Amendment to the Constitution calls for equal protection under the law. Our current debate only promises us equal oppression under the law. As long as the law benefits one party at the expense of another, equality under the law is an impossibility.

1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1950), p. 117.
2. Lawrence E. Harrison, Who Prospers?: How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success  (New York: BasicBooks, 1992), p. 41.
3. Barbara Ward, "The Economic Revolution," Adventures of the Mind from the Saturday Evening Post  (New York:Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1959, 1960, 1961), p. 264.
4. Bill Piatt, English Only?: Law and Language Policy in the United States  (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990.), 156.
5. Ron Gross, The Independent Scholar's Handbook  (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982), p. 36.
6. Thomas Paine, edited by Moncure Daniel Conway, "Common Sense", The Writings of Thomas Paine  (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1894), p. 69.

| Article Index | Top of Page |