Toolkit Resources


Should English Be the Official Language of the United States? STIRS Student Case Study

Lynn Burley, PhD
Department of Writing, The University of Central Arkansas
Conway, Arkansas

Abstract: This case study examines the idea of declaring English as the official language of the United States, considering issues of language planning, national identity, Constitutional rights, education, financial costs and minority group rights. The case uses readings covering these issues as well as U.S. Census Bureau data to help define who does and does not speak English and the historical context of immigrants. Students begin with readings from the leading organizations for an official language (ProEnglish and U.S. English) and several readings from James Crawford, President of the Institute for Language and Education Policy, and from the Linguistic Society of America.  Next, students must determine how U.S. Census Bureau language data from 1970 to 2010 can be used to understand the context of non-native English speakers. Then complicating factors are introduced as students consider the consequences of having an official language, 1) for minority groups, particularly Native Americans; 2) for language education in public schools as well as adult education; and 3) for U.S. citizens’ rights as defined in the U.S. Constitution. The case study can be taught in whole or in part or can be expanded to cover in more depth issues of education, language rights, policy planning, bilingualism and/or statistics.

This is a Dilemma/Decision case that asks students to ascertain the facts, analyze the problem, consider solutions and determine the consequences of the solution.

Use in Courses:  This case was developed for a first-year general education seminar course called Language, Culture and Society, an introductory course in linguistic anthropology meant for students of any major. Issues in this case are relevant in other linguistics courses examining language and identity or language use, in education courses examining teaching English to non-native speakers and bilingual education, in language courses examining second language acquisition, in political science courses examining government and politics, or in courses that concentrate on interpreting descriptive statistical data such as in sociology courses and quantitative reasoning or quantitative literacy courses. The case can be extended to cover some areas more in-depth such as how U.S. Census Bureau data are relevant, how data are collected and how those data can be interpreted.  Educational issues are also of great importance and can be extended to how public school systems teach non-Native English speakers, how second languages are learned, and which pedagogical methods are best.

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Professor Burley was named an AAC&U STIRS Scholar in 2014 and developed this case for the STIRS Program.