This is a follow-up on my Language devaluation and Pushing buttons posts from last Monday, and coincidentally also a follow-up on (the first comment on) Bill Poser's Obama's Indonesian post from Friday.
I had promised in the Language devaluation post that I would (when I found the time) collect arguments for why English should not be the official language of the United States. I haven't really found the time yet, but several LL readers were kind enough to take the time to offer their help in the comments section of that post. See the first comment in particular (from Ryan Rosso), chock-full of useful links.
As several commenters point out, a lot depends on what it means to designate an official language — that is, what the practical effects of that designation are. Some think that it would be no more than a symbolic gesture here in the U.S., a formal recognition of an obvious reality: English is by far the dominant language of the nation. Others think (and I agree) that a piece of legislation is a piece of legislation: the original intent may be symbolic, but once it's there it can be used as a tool for less-than-symbolic (shall we say) purposes.
[ Incidentally: recall the calculated shifting around among "official", "national", and "common and unifying" in the House and Senate two years ago, as Ben Zimmer discusses in an LL Classic Post ("English: official, national, common, unifying, or other?"); see also Bill Poser's two posts flanking Ben's ("Senate votes for official English", "What does 'official' mean?"). ]
Whether particular attempts to use such legislation as tools for evil (or for awesome) would be successful certainly depends on many factors, but you can bet your bottom dollar that shit would be attempted. (Apologies in advance to Bill O'Beirne.) My suspicions about this are to my mind solidly confirmed by the opinions of people like Conservative Beach Girl (CBG) who assume that English already is the official language of the U.S.:
Any and all "official" ballots printed in any other language other than English should not be counted and should be considered "null and void".
Upon receiving citizenship, a naturalized citizen must prove some marginal fluency in English. Why? Because English is the official language of our nation. End of story.
Aside from being generally offensive and insulting to me as an American citizen, all ATM machines which use more than English for transactions should be closed. No ballots or census documents should be printed in any language other than English. End of story.
I fearfully imagine opinions like those expressed by CBG being put into legislative action just as soon as the 'symbolic gesture' of making English official is made law.
[ Aside: My good buddy Ed Keer reminds me of his Amish loophole argument, relevant to CBG's citizenship requirement. Why demand "some marginal fluency in English" only from naturalized citizens? We should demand something parallel from American-born citizens as well. ]
Some readers may be interested in trying the following at home. Find a bunch of people (who don't also read LL, preferably) and ask them a series of questions about how much they favor or disfavor public or private funding for voting ballots / healthcare services / school programs / after-school programs / advertisements / other media / what-have-you in languages other than English. Then, ask them whether they think English is the official language of the United States, and after you tell them that it's not, how much they favor or disfavor making English the official language of the United States. I assigned a version of this questionnaire as a class project for a large undergraduate class (200+ students) this Spring. Each student interviewed six or more people, so we had a very large dataset. Many of the results were (to me) unsurprising — though I should make clear that I don't know about their statistical significance. Generally, those who thought that English is the official language of the U.S. were slightly more likely to disfavor public or private funding for the types of things listed above, and there's a clear trend on the seven-point scale from "very much in favor of" to "very much against" making English the official language: the more in favor someone is of making English official, the more they are against public or private funding for the types of things listed above — and the more likely they are to have thought that English is already official (and vice-versa).
This brings me to the minor flap over Barack Obama's statement last week (and his clarification later in the week) that Americans should strive to be bilingual. (Yesterday's Pearls Before Swine comic should explain why it has taken me a while to get to this.) Jokes about Ali G. interviewing Noam Chomsky aside (check out the "terrorist fist jab" at the end!), I think this is a great thing for a presidential candidate who promises change to be doing (especially one who is being accused of pandering to the other side): turning an issue around that knee-jerkingly matters to a great deal of voters and forcing them to look at their arrogant selves in the mirror. What are you doing to encourage better standards of communication in your own country and around the world?