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Why English Is Not The Official Language Of The US

Some 180 countries have an official language, but the US is somewhat of an exception.

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Tom Hale

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Edited by Laura Simmons
Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

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A crowd of tourists take photographs of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York, United States

The US was founded on the principles of individual liberty and equality – and that goes for language too. 

Image credit: Jenny Marvin/Unsplash

Despite common belief, English is not the official language of the US. In fact, it is one of the exceptional countries on the planet that does not officially recognize any language. To understand why, we must travel back to the genesis of the US and the ambitious ideals of the Founding Fathers.

Across the world, approximately 180 countries have an official language and more than 100 have multiple official languages. The country that currently holds the record for the most is Bolivia, which has 37 official languages including Spanish and dozens of Indigenous languages.

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Countries adopt official languages to establish a universal means of communication in their governance, making it easier to outline and define things like laws, rights, etc. It can also be used as a tool to foster national unity and preserve cultural identity.

However, when the US came to fruition during the 18th century, it had other ideas at the forefront of its mind, namely the ideals of individual liberty and equality. 

While English was establishing itself as the most dominant language in the American colonies throughout the 1700s, there were still significant portions of the population who spoke their mother tongue from their homeland: German, Dutch, Flemish, French, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish, Gaelic, Portuguese, Italian, and more. 

As a multicultural country of migrants who spoke an array of different languages, it was deemed unfair to pick one language over any other. In 1780, John Adams proposed that English should be made the official language of the US to the Continental Congress, but it was deemed “undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty.” 

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There is an urban legend that Congress came very close to approving German as the official language, but it didn’t pass due to a single vote cast by Frederick Muhlenberg, the first-ever Speaker of the US House of Representatives. However, this story has been thoroughly debunked as a myth. 

The US has no official language at the federal level, but 32 of the 50 US states and all five US territories have recognized English as an official language at a local level. 

Furthermore, there have been continued attempts to install English as the official language of the US in recent decades. Even recently, in 2023, Republican Senators JD Vance of Ohio and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota introduced a bill to declare English as the nation’s official language.

Many of these attempts have been driven out of fear that the English language is dying, but that’s a pretty sensational – and unfounded – claim.

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The latest census data indicates that 78.3 percent of the nation speaks only English at home. While that is slightly down from the previous dataset (78.7 percent in 2013-2017), it’s evident that English reigns supreme. The second most commonly spoken language in the US is Spanish, yet 61 percent of Spanish speakers can additionally speak English “very well.” 

Languages are constantly evolving – and the US, for once, is no exception. Linguists have reported several developments in the way people speak in the US compared to decades gone by. For instance, researchers have noted how the classic Southern accent is fading away. Conversely, new accents are being born in other places as a result of cultural intermingling between Spanish and English speakers. 

Parts of the English language may be shape-shifting in the US, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. 

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current. 


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