The United States can be recognized by its political borders, a commonly shared culture, and a distinct language. The borders of the nation are clearly recognized and enforced. The aspects that define the shared culture/outlook of the nation are recognized and enforced to a degree by their codification in the legal system of the nation. Some of these aspects include age of consent, rules concerning drug use, the concept of legal adulthood, severity of punishments for particular social taboos and what is defined to be social deviancy. The national language on the other hand is something that has remained de-facto instead of de-jure. It would be in the best interest of the country to codify this aspect as well.
Before exploring some of the trade-offs of adopting a national language, it would be wise to first determine the practicality of the decision. It would be pointless to codify a national language if the majority of the population did not speak it, nor were willing to. According to the U.S. Census Bureau more than eighty percent of Americans speak English as a primary language. Also, at least 30 states and a handful of protectorates have already declared English as an official language. From this the choice of language is obvious, and I suspect therefore that a majority would support the decision. Given the clear majority, practicality would not be a significant issue as the infrastructure is already in place.
There have been a number of issues raised to why declaring English as the national language would be a mistake. These arguments generally focus around what could be seen as a pretense for justifying discrimination against foreigners and certain subcultures which do not use English as a primary language. For example, the ACLU published a position paper in 2000 stating in part: “‘English Only’ laws, which declare English to be the country’s official language and bar government employees from providing non-English language assistance and services, are inconsistent with both the First Amendment right to communicate with or petition the government, and the right to equality.”
While the ACLU claim and others like it are not without merit, this issue can cut both ways. By not declaring an official language, the federal government is not currently required to provide or publish information in English. If they decided not do so then this would also infringe on the ability of citizens to communicate and/or petition the government. While English is indeed the most popular language at the moment, in the future there is a real possibility that it may not be. If the nation develops into one of multiple primary languages similar to those seen in Europe, the ability to efficiently and directly communicate with one another and the government would be even more difficult. The adoption of an official language does not necessitate the elimination of others, nor the prevention of a secondary official language as is perceived by the opponents of such legislation. On the contrary, it would provide a guarantee of a common medium of information exchange and a minimum requirement of local and higher levels of government.
As a result of the historical actions of Great Britain and the United States during their international efforts, good or ill, English in a diminished form is also widely regarded as the de-facto language of international communication4. The opportunity to align what is spoken at home with what is spoken abroad would even better facilitate communication and could promote a unity beyond what has ever been historically possible.