The issue of immigration has risen to the top of the national agenda as the United States has witnessed an unprecedented flood of immigrants in recent years. This explosion has created pressure on the Congress to enact comprehensive reform of our immigration laws. Yet while the national attention is focused on the need to regain control of our borders, the challenge to effectively integrate the vast number of immigrants already in the US to the mainstream of American society must be met.
Mastery of English is indispensable to the integration of America’s newcomers into our English-speaking society; proficiency in English is essential to educational, professional, and social opportunities for all Americans.
While few would deny that English is the bridge to full participation in America, official policies, such as those which recognize other languages as the accepted language of the ballot box and as a legitimate medium of instruction, may actually impede the learning of English. These government programs – multilingual ballots and bilingual education – foster continued dependence on native languages, thus serving as linguistic barriers which also impede the process of assimilation.
Our nation’s naturalization laws, for example, require competency in English as a condition of US citizenship. However, federal law since 1975 has required that limited-English-proficient (LEP) individuals who vote, and thus who exercise the highest privilege of US citizenship, be provided with ballots in their native language.
Certainly there are difficulties in providing adequate instruction to those of limited English proficiency, and special programs may be needed; the education of those with limited English ability is a challenge which must take into account a variety of unique linguistic, educational, and social factors.
However, despite the diversity of LEP students throughout America, for almost a decade we have highlighted bilingual education as the method for increasing LEP students’ proficiency in English. This situation is largely the result of federal regulations developed in 1975 which basically require school districts to provide instructions for LEP students in their native language as a condition of eligibility for federal funds, affecting over 400 school districts in the US. However, although bilingual education has been the teaching strategy utilized to the virtual exclusion of alternative instructional approaches, little conclusive evidence has been produced which supports the effectiveness of and exclusive reliance on bilingual education.
Not only does it make little sense to continue expending scarce federal dollars on this one unproven method, but I have serious reservations about the federal government prescribing to school districts a specific approach to remedy the problem of educating America’s LEP students. Clearly, local school districts are in a stronger position than the federal government to identify and meet the unique needs of students.
Because of my concern with the trend toward the quasiofficial recognition of languages other than English in America and with the growing number of government-sponsored programs that may in fact be impeding the learning of English, I have introduced a constitutional amendment which would designate English as the official language of the US. This amendment, commonly known as the English Language Amendment, would eliminate the use of multilingual election materials. Also, while it would not eliminate the use of bilingual education, it would place emphasis on its use as a transitional instructional method and would encourage the use of a broader range of instructional approaches to assist LEP students in becoming proficient in English. Moreover, and perhaps most important, the amendment makes it clear to immigrant parents and children that mastery of the English language is indispensable for becoming a full member of American society.
The ELA should by no means be construed as a betrayal of the diverse cultures that make up our great Nation. America has been immeasurably enriched by the ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity of our society, and thus it is vital that this varied cultural tradition be preserved. I would submit, though, that our common language has been a powerful factor in forging strength and unity from such diversity and that its primacy must be preserved as well. The ELA is an important step in reaffirming the unifying role English has played in our complex and diverse country and reemphasizing that proficiency in English is essential to full participation in American society.
Rep. Norman D. Shumway (R) of Norman, Calif., is the ranking minority member of the Subcommittee on Economic Stabilization of the House Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs.