A war over words

An influx of foreign-speaking immigrants is fueling the debate over whether English should be America's official language

The U.S. has long prided itself on its reputation as a melting pot, opening its arms to foreigners who forge new lives as Americans. But now, complaints are growing that many recent arrivals are not melting in and that one of the nation’s common bonds — the English language — is threatened.

Across the country, a move to make English the official language is gathering steam. Bills have been introduced in 12 states, including Alabama, Missouri and New Hampshire, and there is a drive to add an English-language amendment to Florida’s Constitution. Now, all eyes are on California, where residents will vote next month on a proposition that would declare English the official language of the nation’s most populous state.

“We are not trying to stop immigration, but we want those who enjoy staying here to share in the responsibility of learning English, to be part of the mainstream. And use a common language is the best way to get it,” says Roger Hughes, a California English Campaign volunteer and member of a Washington, D.C.-based national group called U.S. English. Census figures show that 1 in every 10 Americans speaks a foreign language at home. Of those, about half speak Spanish.

Overtones of racism

“Instead of promoting the glue that language is, this has polarized communities,” argues Joseph Trevino of the League of United Latin Americans Citizens in Washington, one of many ethnic and civil-rights groups that think the pro-English move will promote racism.

While proponents deny such motivations, they admit they want to halt the advance of Spanish as an alternative language and to cut back on the $133 million spent by the federal government annually on bilingual education. They also oppose expansion of multilingual voting materials, which now are provided in 375 localities. They argue that English is being eroded in many ways:

* In most states, it is possible to get a high-school-equivalency diploma without knowning English because tests are offered in Spanish and French. In reality, diplomas are awarded to relatively few non-English speakers because some states where the demand is greatest, such as New York and New Jersey, also require an English-proficiency test.

* In 39 states, driving tests are printed in foreign languages. Michigan’s tests come in 20 varieties — including Arabic, Finnish and Portuguese.

* In some U.S. towns along the Mexican border, it is difficult to find an English-language radio station.

To date, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, Nebraska, Kentucky and Georgia have adopted policies recognizing English as official. Similar measures have been taken in 39 localities from Los Altos, Calif., to Elmira, N.Y. Such actions have had no practical effect, U.S. English officials concede, because they don’t have enforcement mechanisms.That’s where California’s Proposition 63 differs. It encourages residents and businesses to file lawsuits by establishing a private right to sue. Because the proposition is vaguely worded, critics fear it could unleash court challenges on such issues as the legality of foreign-language street signs or multilingual welfare and emergency-room services.

Criticism about instruction

Advocates of English are most upset over bilingual education, which teaches minority-language children in their own tongue while introducing them to English. The aim is to achieve proficiency in two to three years, but critics complain that quality and the speed at which English is introduced vary so widely that instruction often drags out to six or seven years. Opponents argue that the pro-English movement offers nothing positive to help non-English speakers learn the language.

For some immigrants, there is no answer. Says Cuban-born Maria del Carmen Llagostera, who lives in Miami: “How am I going to learn English at age 70? I’ve tried to study, but it just doesn’t stick. I forget the words.”

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