The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When and why do U.S. states make English their official language?

Rick Santorum. Made in America. Not “Hecho en América” (Mike Stone/Reuters)

During his 2012 campaign for the GOP Presidential nomination, Rick Santorum – while visiting Puerto Rico – declared that the territory must adopt English as its primary (i.e., official) language if it wanted statehood.  The statement was not altogether unexpected from a conservative candidate on the national stage.  Indeed, we have seen a number of calls for English language legislation in recent years, which are often tied to issues of immigration and immigration reform. Yet, such legislation is quite common in the United States. Thirty-one states have adopted English as their official language, most (27 of these 31) since the 1980s. This tally includes both “blue” and “red” states, and stretches from coast to coast (see the map below).

During the same period, immigration to the U.S. has quadrupled, with many individuals arriving from non-English speaking countries.  Statements by pundits and politicians aside, it makes intuitive sense to think of these laws as some sort of anti-immigration response driven by threat.  And, in our recent article in Research and Politics (open access), we find a relationship between immigrant population size, the presence of an initiative process, and the adoption of English-official legislation in states. Yet, we only find this relationship when immigration is in the national news.  When immigration receives a lot of coverage, the saliency of the subject matter seems to prompt states – especially those with large immigrant populations and direct initiatives – to respond with legislation that makes English the official language.

Our findings beg another question: While it appears that “threat” drives the adoption of English-official legislation, how “threatening” is such legislation really?  While a good deal of the surrounding political rhetoric comes from a place of English-chauvinism or anti-immigration sentiments, what are the real policy consequences? After all, most American states currently have English-official legislation on the books.

First, English-official laws are not the same as English-only laws.  The former stipulate that the English language be a language of official matters, but English need not be used to the exclusion of other languages.  In contrast, the latter mandate the exclusive use of the English language; the use of any other language in public settings can be punished.  A few (historical) examples are illustrative – compare, for instance, Louisiana to Nebraska.  In 1807 Louisiana legislated English and French as official languages of the state. In contrast,  Nebraska adopted English-only legislation in 1920 (in response to anti-German sentiment in the wake of World War I).  The teaching of German – and any other language aside from English – was banned from the classrooms.  The distinction between these types of legislation is quite important for speakers of non-English languages.  Clearly, sometimes the adoption of English-official language laws draws upon anti-immigrant sentiment.  But, not all such legislation has adverse consequences for immigrants.

Second, the scope of what falls under English-official laws varies dramatically across states.  Realistically, such laws are open to some interpretation, and some carry little weight.  Some laws cover matters relating to aspects of health care, or the legal and educational systems of the state.  English-official legislation can involve everything from the sale of boats (in the state of Florida), to agricultural labels (in Kentucky), to acupuncturist licenses (in Massachusetts).  Some other states – e.g., Colorado (1988) – have adopted English as an official language, but have since remained largely silent on linguistic matters.

While there is a relationship between immigrant population and the presence of English-official legislation, the policy consequences are sometimes less threatening – indeed, some laws on the books are simply practical, and some are quite toothless.  With continued discussion over immigration reform, and with 2016 fast approaching, we should brace ourselves for the next rounds of English-official rhetoric.  However, we should do so remembering that Massachusetts is in the same column as Mississippi – much of the status quo in America is English-official.