U.S. Rep. Dean Heller on May 6 issued a statement saying he had introduced legislation requiring English only in the printing of ballots. His reason, he said, was that “Maintaining national unity requires adoption of a common language.” He made this assertion without substantiating it. Should we adopt a law on nothing more than his say-so that unity is the outcome of uniformity?Before he subjects us to the kind of language policing laws the French have experienced, we thought it would be a good idea to examine Heller’s notion to see how it performs when it is lifted off the page of a news release and taken for a spin in reality.
According to the Census Bureau, the overwhelming majority of people in the United States (including immigrants and Latinos) speak English—only 4.8 percent do not. Only about 20 percent are bilingual. Yet we are constantly at each other’s throats, the nation’s politics is meanspirited, more than eight in 10 said the country is headed in the wrong direction in a survey released by the Washington Post and ABC last week. Some unity.
In Europe, nearly everyone is bi- or multilingual and YouGov and ICM opinion surveys show people feel relative contentment with their lives. There are nations that are multilingual by law, such as Belgium and Luxembourg, and they are not generally thought of as hotbeds of discontent. Switzerland has four official languages—German, French, Italian, and Romansh—and we all know how restless and angry the Swiss are.
Interestingly, there are three U.S. states that are bilingual by law— Louisiana (English and French), New Mexico (English and Spanish), and Hawai’i (English and Hawaiian). There are even a couple of cities that are bi- or multilingual by law, both in Florida—Hialeah (English and Spanish) and Miami (English, French Creole and Spanish).
Looking across the world at various jurisdictions, it’s hard to draw Heller-like conclusions. Canada is officially bilingual, but China is officially unilingual—the official language there is Putonghua, and it predominates throughout the nation in concert with local dialects.
Pakistan has two official languages, and India has 23. Is there some conclusion that can be drawn from these side-by-side nations, India relatively stable and Pakistan relatively troubled?
Israel, generally very unified on national goals, is a rich tapestry of languages—Amharic, English, French, Hebrew, Ladino, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Yiddish.
It is possible to find multilingual societies that are peaceful and also to find multilingual societies that are wracked by divisions. The same can be said for single language nations.
Official sanction for languages is a dicey thing. English, for instance, is the sole official language of Botswana, Liberia, Ghana, Gambia, Mauritius, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. Tell us, please, what conclusion do we draw?
We hold the First Amendment in high esteem in this country. Nothing is more basic to expression than the language in which it is spoken. Our Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Any law that demands people speak in a particular language does not respect this country’s founding principles.
Before seeking enactment of legislation on grounds that a single language produces national unity, it would be helpful for Rep. Heller to first prove that it does.