One Nation, One Language?
Would making English the nation's official language unite the country or divide it?
For a Sherman Oaks, Calif., election worker, the last straw was hanging campaign posters in six languages and six alphabets. For a taxpayer in University Park, Texas, it was a requirement that all employees of the local public utility speak Spanish. For a retired schoolteacher from Mount Morris, N.Y., it was taking her elderly and anxious mother to a Pakistani doctor and understanding only a fraction of what he said.
As immigration, both legal and illegal, brings a new flood of foreign speech into the United States, a campaign to make English the nation's official language is gathering strength. According to a new U.S. News poll, 73 percent of Americans think English should be the official language of government. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and more than a third of the members of Congress support proposed federal legislation that would make English America's official tongue; twenty-two states and a number of municipalities already have English-only laws on the books.
Like flag burning and the Pledge of Allegiance, the issue is largely symbolic. Without ever being declared official, American English has survived--and enriched itself from--four centuries of immigration. It is not much easier for today's Guatemalan immigrant to get a good education and a good job without learning English than it was for his Italian, Polish or Chinese predecessors. And at best, eliminating bilingual education might save about a dollar per student per day. But many Americans are feeling threatened by a triple whammy of growing economic uncertainty, some of it caused by foreign competition; rising immigration, much of it illegal; and political pressure to cater to the needs of immigrants rather than letting them sink or swim. "Elevating English as an icon," says author and bilingual expert James Crawford, "has appeal for the insecure and the resentful. It provides a clear answer to the question: Who belongs?"
Nation of strangers. There is no question that America is undergoing another of its periodic diversity booms. According to the Census Bureau, in 1994 8.7 percent of Americans were born in other countries, the highest percentage since before World War II. More tellingly, at least 31.8 million people in the United States speak a language other than English at home. Of the children returning to urban public schools this fall, a whopping one third speak a foreign language first. "It blows your mind," says Dade County, Fla., administrator Mercedes Toural, who counts 5,190 new students speaking no fewer than 56 different tongues.
English-only advocates, whose ranks include recent immigrants and social liberals, believe that accommodating the more than 300 languages spoken in the United States undercuts incentives to learning English and, by association, to becoming an American. Massachusetts offers driver's tests in 24 foreign languages, including Albanian, Finnish, Farsi, Turkish and Czech. Federal voting rights laws provide for ballots in multiple translations. Internal Revenue Service forms are printed in Spanish. And in Westminster, Calif., members of Troop 2194 of the Boy Scouts of America can earn their merit badges in Vietnamese. "It's completely insane," says Mauro Mujica, the chairman of the lobbying group U.S. English and himself an immigrant from Chile. "We are not doing anybody any favors."