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."
Pulling the plug. The proposed official-English laws range from the barely noticeable to the almost xenophobic. A bill introduced by Missouri Republican Rep. Bill Emerson would mandate English for government use but provide exceptions for health, safety and civil and criminal justice. Although it is the most viable of the bunch, it would change the status quo so little that it begs the question of why it is needed at all. The most extreme official-English measures would pull the plug on what their sponsors consider linguistic welfare, ending bilingual education and bilingual ballots.
Advocates of official-English proposals deny that their measures are draconian. Says U.S. English's Mujica: "We are simply saying that official documents should be in English and money saved on translations could go to help the people learn English. We're saying you could still take a driver's test in another language, but we suggest it be temporary till you learn English."
U.S. English, which reports 600,000 contributors, was founded by the late U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, a Japanese-American linguistics professor, and boasts advisory board members such as Saul Bellow and Alistair Cooke. The group was tarred eight years ago when its founder, John Tanton, wrote a memo suggesting that Hispanics have "greater reproductive powers" than Anglos; two directors quit, Tanton was forced out and the group has been rebuilding its reputation ever since. Its competitor, English First, whose founder, Larry Pratt, also started Gun Owners of America, is more hard-line.
Defenders of bilingual education, multilingual ballots and other government services ask whether legal immigrants will vote if there are no bilingual ballots. If foreign speakers can't read the street signs, will they be allowed to drive? Such thoughts bring Juanita Morales, a Houston college student, to tears. "This just sets up another barrier for people," she says. "My parents don't know English, and I can hardly speak Spanish anymore and that's painful to me."
Go it alone, the hard-liners reply, the way our grandfathers did. But these advocates don't mention that there is little, if any, evidence that earlier German or Italian immigrants mastered English any faster than the current crop of Asians, Russians and Central Americans. And it's hard to argue that today's newcomers aren't trying. San Francisco City College teaches English to 20,000 adults every semester, and the waiting list is huge. In De Kalb County, Ga. 7,000 adults are studying English; in Brighton Beach, N.Y., 2,000 wait for a chance to learn it.
The economic incentives for learning English seem as clear as ever. Yes, you can earn a good living in an ethnic enclave of Chicago speaking nothing but Polish. But you won't go far. "Mandating English," says Ron Pearlman of Chicago, "is like mandating that the sun is going to come up every day. It just seems to me that it's going to happen."
What worries many Americans are efforts to put other languages on a par with English, which often come across as assaults on American or Western culture. Americans may relish an evening at a Thai restaurant or an afternoon at a Greek festival, but many are less comfortable when their children are celebrating Cinco de Mayo, Kwanzaa and Chinese New Year along with Christmas in the public schools. In Arlington, Va., a classically trained orchestra teacher quit the public school system rather than cave in to demands to teach salsa music.
But diversity carries the day. The U.S. Department of Education policy is not simply to promote learning of English but also to maintain immigrants' native tongues. And supporters of that policy make a good case for it. "People ask me if I'm embarrassed I speak Spanish," says Martha Quintanilla Hollowell, a Dallas County, Texas, district attorney. "I tell them I'd be more embarrassed if I spoke only one language."
Language skills. That may be what's most disturbing about the English-only sentiment: In a global economy, it's the monolingual English speakers who are falling behind. Along with computer skills, a neat appearance and a work ethic, Americans more and more are finding that a second language is useful in getting a good job. African-Americans in Dade County, now more than half Hispanic, routinely lose tourism positions to bilingual Cubans. Schoolteachers cry foul because bilingual teachers earn more money while monolingual teachers are laid off. "There is no way I could get a job in the Los Angeles public schools today," says Lucy Fortney, an elementary school teacher for 30 years.
The proliferation of state and local English-only laws has led to a flurry of language-discrimination lawsuits and a record number of complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ed Chen, a lawyer with the San Francisco office of the American Civil Liberties Union, says clients have been denied credit and insurance because they don't speak English. But courts increasingly have endorsed laws that call for exclusive use of English on the job. Officials at New York's Bellevue Hospital, where the vast majority of nurses are Filipino, say an English-only law was necessary because nurses spoke Tagalog among themselves.
Other employers have wielded English-only laws as a license to discriminate, giving rise to fears that a national law would encourage more of the same. A judge in Amarillo, Texas, claimed a mother in a custody case was committing "child abuse" by speaking Spanish to her child at home. Another Texas judge denied probation to a drunk driver because he couldn't benefit from the all-English Alcoholics Anonymous program. In Monterey Park, Calif., a citizens' group tried to ban Chinese signs on businesses that served an almost all-Asian clientele. In Dade County, a since-repealed English-only law was so strict that it forbade using public funds to pay for court translations and bilingual signs to warn metrorail riders against electrocution.
Though it is not intended as such, the English-first movement is a reminder of a history of prejudice toward speakers of foreign tongues. Many American Indians were prohibited from speaking their own languages. The Louisiana Legislature banned the use of Cajun French in public schools in 1912, but instead of abandoning their culture, many Cajuns dropped out of school and never learned English. French was finally allowed back in the schools in the 1960s. As recently as 1971, it was illegal to speak Spanish in a public school building in Texas, and until 1923 it was against the law to teach foreign languages to elementary school pupils in Nebraska. At Ellis Island, psychologists tested thousands of non-English-speaking immigrants exclusively in English and pronounced them retarded.
Champions of diversity say it's high time Americans faced the demographic facts. In Miami, with leading trade partners Colombia and Venezuela, businesses would be foolish to restrict themselves to English. If emergency services suffer because of a shortage of foreign-speaking 911 operators, it is downright dangerous not to hire more. As for embattled teachers, Rick Lopez of the National Association of Bilingual Education says: "Why should we expect students to learn a new language if teachers can't do the same? We have to change the product to fit the market. The market wants a Toyota and we're still building Edsels."
Many Americans still value the melting pot: General Mills's new Betty Crocker is a digitized, multiethnic composite. But Skokie, Ill., educator Charlene Cobb, for one, prefers a colorful mosaic. "You don't have to change yourself," she says, "to make a whole thing that's very beautiful." The question is whether the diverse parts of America still make up a whole.
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A LANDSLIDE FOR OFFICIAL ENGLISH A rising tide A larger share of Americans were foreign born earlier in this century, but their numbers are again on the rise.
Foreign born residents as share of U.S. population 1900 13.6 percent 1910 14.7 percent 1920 13.2 percent 1930 11.6 percent 1940 8.8 percent 1950 6.9 percent 1960 5.4 percent 1970 4.8 percent 1980 6.2 percent 1990 7.9 percent 1994 8.7 percent USN&WR--Basic data: U.S. Census Bureau
American voters who favor making American voters who favor making English the official language of government (for instance, printing government forms only in English): FAVOR: 73 percent OPPOSE: 23 percent
Voters who favor legislation that would prohibit bilingual election ballots and swearing-in ceremonies: FAVOR: 50 percent OPPOSE: 43 percent
U.S. News poll of 1,000 registered voters conducted by Celinda Lake of Lake Research and Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group on Sept. 11-13, 1995. Margin of error: plus or minus 3.1 percent. Percentages may not add up to 100 because some respondents answered, "Don't know."
DEFENDING THE MOTHER TONGUE English not spoken here Most of the 6.7 million non-English-speaking people in the United States live in the Southwest, south Florida and New York. So far, 22 states have enacted English-only laws.
[Map is not available.]
Note: Demographic data as of 1990 census and laws as of August, 1995.
USN&WR--Basic data: U.S. Census Bureau; U.S. English
This story appears in the September 25, 1995 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.