Jan. 17, 1999 — People in Arizona, it seems, will greet the new millennium with two huge fights about language.
Ron Unz — the man who led Proposition 227, which did away with bilingual education in California — has found allies in Arizona who want to put a similar question on the state’s November 2000 ballot.
And on a semi-separate front, a different group wants to place on the same ballot a new and improved version of the 1988 law that made English the state’s “official language.” That 1988 law was struck down as unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court, a decision that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court just this week.
Official-English laws have not a single redeeming quality. They are meant to solve a problem that does not exist and to belittle individuals who have the temerity to know a language that is not English.
National groups like U.S. English and the local version, Arizonans for Official English, have got it into their collective head that the English language — and hence the fabric that holds this nation together — is under assault by waves of immigrants who refuse to learn English. You can bet they are not worried about French or Chinese ousting English — it is Spanish they fear.
The fears are groundless. There is no anti-English movement. Just about every immigrant I have ever met is well aware of the importance of knowing English, and either knows it or wants to learn it. English is so solidly entrenched as this nation’s dominant tongue it is laughable to theorize that any other language will one day supplant it, even if a couple of clerks at the state department of motor vehicles speak in Spanish to a customer who speaks poor English and seeks to renew his registration.
Yet that is precisely the kind of thing the 1988 law prohibited. What will a new version, watered down to meet constitutional requirements, prohibit? Will it simply state that English is the official language of Arizona and leave it at that? What purpose would that serve other than to suggest to people who speak two languages that they are not as American as those who speak English only?
Besides, in the long run all the children of those immigrants will learn English; many will, unfortunately, forget their native tongue. It is actually impossible to prevent young children from learning English.
Perhaps as they get to high school many will have trouble with the kind of English that lands decent jobs, but so do millions of native English speakers. It is a problem that has more to do with lower standards in the nation’s public schools than with the language spoken at home.
Which brings up the matter of bilingual education. Official-English laws are meant to fix something that is not broken. Bilingual education, however, is broken and needs fixing. The problem is Unz and his allies want to end it, not mend it.
The bilingual education establishment says it can take up to 10 years for young children with “limited English proficiency” to learn English. The claim is as absurd as the claim that English is under siege. LEP kids in the early grades can be ready for the English- language classroom in two or three years — that’s simply the way the human brain works at that age. The problem is with older kids. The closer to puberty, the more difficult it is to learn a new language — that, too, is the way the human brain works at that age. So it makes sense that high school sophomores who are not proficient in English be able to take courses in their native tongue while also undergoing intensive English-language instruction. They can keep up with geometry and history while learning English.
Doing away with bilingual education, as Unz’s allies want, forces that sophomore to sit in a geometry class without understanding the teacher.
To what purpose? Ending bilingual education also makes trouble for the handful of full-time bilingual schools, which aim not merely to transition LEP students from their home language to English, but to teach two languages to all students, including those from monolingual English homes.
Imagine that, a United States where even native English speakers are fluent in another language. What a terrible thing.
Roger Hernandez is a nationally syndicated columnist and Writer-in- Residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He can be reached via email at TRMG60A@prodigy.com.