Repost from the old site.
As a linguist who has actually worked in the field as a professional linguist (and anthropologist) I happen to know quite a bit about official language laws around the world.
Most countries of the world have at least one official language. In Latin America, it is generally Spanish. In Africa, it is often a colonial language along with one or more large national languages. India has about 13 official languages, often one for each state, with English and Hindi given some prominence. In Israel, believe it or not, Arabic and Hebrew are official languages.
The official languages of the Philippines are Tagalog and English. In Europe, the official language tends to be the main language of the country – German in Germany, Portuguese in Portugal, Dutch in Holland, etc. Sometimes, a smaller regional language is also designated an official (regional) language, but these are mostly just used in a certain area.
Some European countries have many official languages, without apparent problems. The Netherlands has 13 official languages, if you can believe that. Finland has 2, Swedish and Finnish. The UK has three – French (Channel Islands), Welsh and English. Switzerland has three – French, German, Italian and Romansch. Belgium has French, German and Dutch. Ireland has Irish and English.
Having more than one official language in most or all cases has not caused any problems with separatism. Where separatism exists, it was present or even worse while the regional language was being suppressed. Separatism will exist in some cases whether you repress it by force or if you allow autonomy to flower.
The French are pretty terrible about this – as French is the only official language in France and the French are bigots towards other languages. In Canada, French is an official language in Quebec, but they have been speaking French in Quebec before there was a Canada. French is an indigenous language there. The Turks and some Arab states are bigoted about Turkish and Arabic.
In general, though, official languages are not much of a source of problem in most of the world, only where they are used as instruments of the ultranationalist chauvinism described above. And why should not everyone in Turkey, France and some Arab states just speak Turkish, French and Arabic only?
Well, maybe they should, but they also have a right to speak their regional language, because the Bretons and Basques were speaking Breton and Basque long before there was a France. The Kurds have been speaking Kurdish in Turkey for thousands of years before there was a Turkish state. The Kurds and Assyrians in Iraq and Syria spoke their languages for thousands of years before there was an Iraq or Syria.
Many countries have quite a few official languages. As noted, India has 13. South Africa has 11 official languages. Adopting quite a few languages as official has not been much of a problem for most countries, though Americans probably think it is stupid or crazy.
Which brings us to the United States. Official language policy has sadly fallen to the same lunatic forces that have taken over our immigration debate. Do we have an official language in the US? No, we do not, but many states do. About 30 states have designated English as the official language, New Mexico has designated Spanish an official language and Hawaii has designated Hawaiian as an official language.
Is it rational for Hawaiian to be an official language of Hawaii? Sure, it’s been spoken there for hundreds of years before we stole the place. Spanish in New Mexico? Sure. When New Mexico was admitted to the Union, a large percentage of the population were Spanish speakers of Spanish, not Mexican, heritage.
There are many Indian languages in the US, but most of them are dying, and many are already dead. They have few speakers and in no case do they make up a large percentage of a state’s speakers.
Nor do we have a situation similar to New Mexico anywhere else in the US. When California was admitted to the US, there were some Spanish-speaking Californios (only .1% of the population of Mexico lived in California when it was a part of Mexico), but they were quite outnumbered by then by English-speakers flooding in with the Gold Rush.
The vast majority of Spanish speakers in California are relatively recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America, legal and illegal, with some second language speakers like me. I am not aware of any case anywhere on Earth where the language of a recent wave of immigrants has been granted official status. If you know of one, let me know.
The vast majority of the people in the US speak English. According to global norms, English should be the official language of the United States. In most of the sane world, that would be a noncontroversial view, and speaking as a linguist, it would be linguistically justified. Yet for some reason, people who advocate English as the official language of the US are derided as bigots!
This is completely bizarre. In the vast majority of the world, making the language of the vast majority of citizens the, or an, official language is a boring and mundane decision. Rarely is the specter of racism raised.
If we can make English an official language of the US without appealing to the language bigots or nativists, let’s do it. English as an, or the, official language need not be the same as English-only. I don’t see why governments at all levels and any businesses could not continue to provide notices and services in other languages for recent immigrants if English was an official language – it’s a rational and humanitarian thing to do.