Language barriers: English has never been America's "official" language. What's behind the recent efforts to change that?

Author:Brown, Robbie

In crisp Japanese, City Councilman Eric Crafton read aloud his resolution to limit Nashville government workers to communicating only in English. "Kono jyoukyou wa kaeru bekidesu," said Crafton, who is fluent in Japanese from his Navy service in Japan. It means, "This situation must change."

The fact that few people, if any, attending the City Council meeting understood Crafton was the point. The Tennessee state capital, like most cities in the country, allows government officials to communicate in any language they choose, and Crafton wanted to change that.

In a proposal that dominated local politics for two years and echoed similar debates around the country, Crafton hoped to make Nashville the largest city in the U.S. to prohibit the government from using languages other than English, with exceptions for issues of health and safety. Crafton says the city government spends more than $100,000 a year on translation and related services, and that he believes those costs should be borne by the constituents who require them.

"I happened to see a state legislature meeting in California where several of the state representatives had interpreters at their desk because they couldn't speak English," Crafton says. "That's not the vision I have for Nashville."

But the vision he does have for Nashville--and eventually America-drew criticism from the mayor and a coalition of civil rights groups, business leaders, ministers, and immigration experts.

While Crafton referred to his proposal as "English First," opponents called it "English Only." In an Op-Ed piece in The Tennessean newspaper, the leaders of nine institutions of higher education in Nashville said the proposal would harm the city's reputation for tolerance and diversity. "The irony of the city known as 'the Athens of the South' becoming the first major metropolitan community in America to pass "English only' is a distressing prospect," they wrote.

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce also opposed the proposal. "Economics is global, and to be competitive you cannot drive away immigrants and the businesses that rely on them," says Ralph J. Schulz, the chamber president. "Businesses from outside Nashville have been calling and saying, 'Is Nashville a xenophobic place?'"


On January 22, Nashville voters rejected the English First proposal. It needed 50 percent of the vote to pass and drew only 44 percent.

The United States has never had an official language. But the debate over language in this country goes...

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