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The Official Language of the United States and its Impact on the Translation Industry

Susana C. Schultz
Strictly Spanish LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio

Do you know what is the official language of the United States? If you answered English, guess again. But don’t feel bad, the vast majority of people would answer that English is the official language of the United States of America. English is the de facto language since, at this point, it is the most widely spoken language in the nation. But Spanish is catching up with over forty million Hispanics speaking their native language at home, at work, and on their daily lives. This brings another point: Why is the U.S., an English-speaking country (or so you think), catering not only to the Spanish language, but to many others that you don’t even know about? Because the U.S. as a nation has never declared an official language. Many people have tried it with no success. In 1780, John Adams proposed to the Continental Congress that English should be declared the official language of the United States. His proposal was deemed "undemocratic and a threat to individual liberty.” This type of debate has been going on for years, with people on both sides of the fence. And yet, the issue isn't any closer to a resolution than it was 200 years ago. This doesn’t mean that the individual states have not declared an official language because many already have. Twenty-seven states, to be exact, have officially declared English as their language.

Let’s not forget that since 1776 we have been—and continue to be—a multilingual nation. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to hear up to 20 different languages spoken in daily life. Today, those numbers are more staggering. According to U.S. English Inc., an advocacy group that supports declaring English as our official language, 322 languages are spoken in the country, with 24 of those spoken in every state and the District of Columbia. California has the most languages, with 207, while Wyoming has the fewest with 56. So why won’t Congress declare an official language? Because we are a nation of immigrants and these numbers prove it. Because declaring an official language would abridge the rights of individuals with limited English proficiency, individuals who are paying taxes and who are entitled to the same rights as those who speak English.

To protect those rights, there is something called Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although twenty seven states have declared English as their official language, in order to receive federal financial assistance those states still have to comply with Title VI, which requires that vital materials be available in the language of everyone receiving benefits subsidized by the Federal Government.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 2000 Executive Order No. 13166 require that public entities receiving federal funds must have all vital documents available in every language that their clients speak; every language, not just Spanish. Why? Because the U.S. has never declared an official language and as such, the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still applies.

Basically, Title VI was best described by President John F. Kennedy in 1963: “Simple justice requires that public funds, to which all taxpayers of all races [colors, and national origins] contribute, not be spent in any fashion which encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in racial [color or national origin] discrimination.”

So, is this the reason why translation companies like Strictly Spanish are seeing so much translation activity? Yes and no. Yes, we are seeing activity from government entities, state, local and federal, because of Title VI and the 2000 Executive Order No. 13166, but we are seeing a lot of private activity as well for a variety of other reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited to, the following:

At Strictly Spanish, we are seeing a staggering increase in requests for Spanish translations. These requests are coming from all of the scenarios described above, and although the vast majority of our work encompasses English-to-Spanish translations, the requests for Spanish-to-English are on the rise.

If you would like more information on opinions for and against English as the official language of the United States, you can read about the ACLU’s position by visiting http://www.lectlaw.com/files/con09.htm, and the U.S. English Inc.’s position at http://www.us-english.org/.

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Declaring an official language would abridge the rights of individuals with limited English proficiency, individuals who are paying taxes and who are entitled to the same rights as those who speak English.