February 21 is International Mother Language Day. This day was first announced by UNESCO in 2000, and has since become an annual tradition. The theme this year is “Inclusion in and through education: Language counts”
No official national language
Although this is written in English, the United States has never had an official national language. Several states do have an official language, though. From its creation, the United States has been a multilingual society, and the debate of whether to establish a national language has also been present since the beginning. Most proposals to establish English as a national language have failed because they have been seen as unconstitutional, and as a threat to the freedom of expression and individual liberty. The U.S. has had such a diversity of languages for so long, that to choose one has been impossible and controversial, although it has been attempted many times.
More than 300 languages in the U.S.
Before the Europeans arrived, researchers estimate that there were approximately 250 languages spoken in the territory that today constitutes the United States. The Europeans who came, brought their own languages, and they also brought slaves, who again spoke their languages, which led to the development of pidgin and creole languages. In the hundreds of years that followed, new immigrants came and brought with them their languages. Today, according to the American Community Survey (by the U.S. Census Bureau), more than 20 percent of the population of the United States speaks a language other than English at home. There are over 300 languages spoken in the United States. The top languages spoken at home are Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French, Korean and German. That said, most Americans understand English, even those who speak another language at home (93 percent of those who speak another language at home, speak English as well, according to the American Community Survey).
This year’s theme: Education
This year’s theme for International Mother Language Day emphasizes the importance of education in one’s native language. Bilingual education has a solid legal foundation in the United States, thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI). According to the Department of Education, English learner students constitute nine percent of all public school students and are enrolled in nearly three out of four public schools. Under Title VI and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 (EEOA), public schools must ensure that these English learner students can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs.
U.S. Embassy Oslo is of course a very multilingual place with employees with many different native languages—see our video that pokes fun at the American lack of a national, official language, in honor of International Mother Language Day!
Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2014. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Seventeenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version