Weekly Column of Sen. Lamar Alexander -“English Is Our National Language”

Posted on May 24, 2006

Last week, by a vote of 63-34, the United States Senate passed an important amendment to the immigration reform bill declaring English to be the national language of the United States. I co-authored this amendment with Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma and believe it is as important as any amendment being offered in our immigration debate. The amendment recognizes that only a few things unite us as Americans: the principles of our founding documents, our history, and our common language. It also recognizes that diversity is a great strength of our country, but that our greater strength is that we have taken all of our magnificent diversity and molded it into one nation based on something other than race, ethnicity, or religion. In the United States, English is part of our national identity. It is part of our spirit and who we are. It is our national language. Americans have always understood that perhaps the most important limit on how many new citizens this country can successfully absorb depends upon how many can be assimilated as Americans, which includes learning our common language and our shared values. It is difficult to imagine “becoming French” or “becoming British” or Japanese or Chinese or German. On the other hand, to be a citizen of this country, one must become an American and learn our common language, English. That has been part of our tradition for over 200 years. I have always believed that the luckiest children in our country are those who learn to speak more than one language. I hope more children learn a second language. But one of those languages must be English, and children should learn it as quickly as is practical. I can remember being at an education meeting in the late 1990s when someone asked, “What is the rationale for public schools?” The late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that the public school was created largely to “teach immigrant children reading, writing [in English] and arithmetic—and what it means to be an American.” At the beginning of the immigration debate, the Senate acknowledged the value of the English language by approving my amendment which offers $500 grants, paid for out of visa fees, to help those legal immigrants who are working toward becoming American citizens learn English. That same amendment said that if you become fluent in English, we will cut a year off the time you have to wait to become a citizen from five years to four years. In other words, we should help people become American, and one way we do that is by helping prospective citizens learn English. When I was Education Secretary for this country 15 years ago, I was preparing for a trip to the Southwest United States and someone told me that I would probably find a lot of people who objected to learning English. But I found just the reverse. I found a lot of people in the Southwest United States who were upset because they didn't have enough help to learn English. They wanted to learn the national language of the United States. That is the spirit in which we offered the amendment to declare English our national language. Some folks have said our discussion of English as the national language is unimportant. It might be unimportant to them, but it isn’t to me, nor is it to most Americans. I think it is at the center of our discussion about immigration and what it means to be an American. We are proud of where we come from, but prouder of who we have become. We are Americans. To make this land of immigrants truly one country, we must have and honor our national language, and that language is English.