WASHINGTON—One point that Americans often boast about to foreign guests is how our country has assimilated different ethnic groups that at first glance seem irreconcilable. Fleeing political repression and religious persecution, these individuals have endured the most difficult of hardships to enjoy the freedom we have to offer.
At one time, most immigrants’ first task was to learn English. This is no longer an accepted fact. Many public sc hools now use bilingual education as a method to bring new citizens i nto the fold of Americansociety. Which is fine, provided that the pro gram adheres to the original concept of bilingual education: the use of the immigrant’s native language as a transitory tool that wil l accelerate the processof learning English.
However, many bilingual programs have veered from this mandate, and now use the native language to teach subjects other than English. This deviation from the original concept results largely from the Carter Administration’s efforts to expand on the ”Lau” guidelines, which came out of the 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision by the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs argued that their Chinese-speaking children were being denied equal access to education because they could not understand courses taught in English. As a result of this decision, in which the Court found for the plaintiffs, school districts were admonished to focus their attention on the needs of non-Englishspeaking students. However, the former Administration pushed to create a binding set of ”Lau” regulations, which would have resulted in school districts being forced into compliance under the threat of withdrawal of funds. Although the regulations were not put into effect, the problem caused by variants of bilingual education linger.
More and more young immigrants are having their entire curriculum taught to them in their native language. The longer they are instructed in the native tongue, the more difficult it becomes for them to learn English in their later years. By allowing this to continue, we are delaying the immigrants’ entrance into the mainstream of society.
The use of bilingual ballots compounds this problem. Made possible by the 1975 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, bilingual ballots were intended to bring more non-English-speaking people into our political system. Jurisdictions in 30 states are now required to provide bilingual ballots to their immigrant citizens, and California’s 39 affected counties must print ballots in Chinese, Spanish and and American Indian.
This policy conflicts with the explicit requirements for naturalization as a citizen, which state that an applicant must be able to ”read, write and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language.” Are we telling immigrants that they must know English to become a citizen but that they don’t need it once naturalized? These crossed signals that we are sending to immigrants have made our immigration and citizenship requirements vague and unclear.
We must make it clear to everyone that America does have an official language. To that end, I have introduced a constitutional amendment that would make English the official language of the country. The amendment contains provisions that would eliminate the costly and conflicting problem of the bilingual ballot, and return bilingual education programs to their original purpose. The amendment would not scrap all bilingual programs, nor would it prohibit foreign-language requirements in schools or colleges. I strongly believe in learning more than one language, and feel our tendency toward monolingualism has put us at a disadvantage in the international business community.
I have received an overwhelmingly favorable response to my amendment, and many letters of approval have come from former immigrants who have told me how important learning English was to them in settling here.
Our strength and creativity has always come from the diverse talents of ethnic groups, and in no way does my amendment attempt to stifle these rich human resources. What it attempts to do is prevent a growing split among ethnic groups based on their native languages. With each trying to become more powerful than the other, the function of language could change from a means of communication to a tool of cultural assertion. Such a struggle for supremacy could have catastrophic consequences.
S.I. Hayakawa is Republican Senator from California.