BOSTON—ALMOST two-thirds of American believe that English is already their country’s official language, firmly embedded in the constitution. It is not. But voters in three states — Arizona, Florida and Colorado — will get a chance next month to make English the language of official discourse in those states. Already 14 states have official-English laws, including California, which is 19% Hispanic.
Leading the campaign to have English made the national language is US English, which has gathered some 350,000 members in its five years’ existence and has annual contributions of $ 7.5m. US English dreams of an amendment to the constitution, but has settled for declarations of principle written into law at the state level. It hopes to prevent states from conducting public business in foreign tongues and to press local school systems to abandon bilingual classrooms, substituting methods of instruction that teach English faster. Bilingual ballots, it believes, should also go — at present the Voting Rights Act makes them mandatory where foreign-speaking people are concentrated.
For 200 years the national language has survived without special protection in the constitution. Except during the first world war, the government never put pressure on immigrants to speak English or drop their customs. Yet officialdom remained committed to English as the language of public life. That is what has changed, according to US English. It argues that government now works not for but against national linguistic unity. “The government — federal, state and local — has joined the ethnic preservation movement in a big way,” says Mrs Linda Chavez, the group’s president.
US English frequently raises the spectre of separatism and strife, citing Canada, Belgium and Sri Lanka as examples to avoid. It is hard to argue that linguistic separatism is really a threat to America, which is at once one of the most ethnically heterogeneous and linguistically homogeneous nations in the world. Besides, there is little evidence that Spanish speakers cling to their language any more fervently than did previous groups of immigrants. According to a study by the Rand Corporation, 95% of Mexican-born Mexican-Americans speak English. The majority of second-generation Mexican-Americans speak only English.
True, those who have trouble learning English have found life easier than in the past: at school, in the courts and in the voting booth. Mr Michael Dukakis and Mr Lloyd Bensten even make parts of their speeches in Spanish. But the high-water mark of ethnic activism seems to have passed. In all three states that will vote this year, the polls show a majority in favour of making English official.
Many Hispanics are offended. “Official English is official racism”, read the banners at political rallies. The mayor of Denver, himself a Hispanic, says the message Hispanics get from official-English measures is that their culture is inferior. Besides, the measures may not change much in practice. In California, where the official-English measure passed by a margin of three to one in 1986, activists have stopped the state legislature from doing anything to enforce the provision. Local school districts set their own rules in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the bilingual lobby has kept bilingual education in place.
Bilingual education may not work. Bilingual ballots may be a waste of public money. And both may deliver the message that America lacks a common culture. But it makes more sense to reform education and ballots directly than to tamper with the constitution.