Ex-Senator S. I. Hayakawa, 84, is a little fail these days. But he clearly recalls why in 1981 he launched the campaign for a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the U.S. With the implementation of laws like the Bilingual Education Act, 1974, the U.S. government was for the first time encouraging people not to learn English. Hayakawa saw what other politicians chose to ignore: that this could mark the beginning of of the end of the great American experiment. Bilingualism was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
He is the eldest son of a Japanese couple who lived in Canada. “We were in a neighborhood with Scots and English. My father spoke and wrote good English and I spoke English with my brother and sisters. My mother never learned English worth a damn, so we spoke Japanese with her.” He got his master’s in English from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where he paid his way working as a cab driver. “I spoke French there — when it was necessary,” he remembers.
So there’s no Anglo-snobbism here, and Hayakawa rejects the notion that other languages are not worth learning. But he remains convinced of the need for a constitutional amendment, the task now of U.S. English, the Washington-based foundation he created when he retired from the Senate in 1983.
Hayakawa knows the vibrant new culture created here is largely a result of the use of a common language, English. His amendment would put into law the country’s political and social reality and clear away the mixed signals given since the 1970s to immigrants. “In the early days of the U.S. there was a great deal of pressure for one language and we all learned English,” he says. “It’s turned out to be a blessing.” It’s a blessing many non-Hispanics would do away with, some out of a naive desire to help immigrant children, even though the polls show Spanish-speaking parents want their children educated in English.