English is now the official language of California, so mandated last week by an overwhelming majority of the state’s voters. It’s a worthy goal, but there’s danger that it will be pursued in an unworthy way.

Proposition 63, approved by a 3-to-1 margin, instructs the Legislature to ”take all steps necessary to insure that the role of English as the common language of the State of California is preserved and enhanced,” and to pass no law that ”diminishes or ignores” it. The proponents claimed only the plainest motives of lingual purity and patriotism, but their campaign nonetheless smacked of a mean-spirited, nativist irritation over the influx of Mexicans and Asians.

There is an overwhelming case for insisting that the United States is, and must remain, an English-speaking country. The ability of all Americans to communicate without translation is woven in the fabric of open society. Economic opportunity depends on it. But to try enforcing the use of English with so blunt an instrument as Proposition 63 could be misguided and unfair.

Strictly interpreted, the new law could mean that newcomers, until they are fluent, could be denied their rights to basic services, like a doctor’s treatment in a public hospital, a social worker’s counseling on child care. The wording of Proposition 63 permits such civil wrongs.

California’s purists don’t mean to go that far. Their targets are bilingual education and, where Federal law doesn’t require them, bilingual ballots. Both are delicate issues. Voting requires citizenship which requires a reading test in English, so why print ballots in a second language? Because the right to vote is fundamental to all others and warrants unique exception; it should not be abridged by a language barrier.

As for bilingual education, everything turns on clear definition. If it means using the newcomer’s native language temporarily to promote learning English, it’s obviously acceptable, indeed desirable. But if it means permanent native-language instruction for immigrants with the aim of maintaining native language as first language, then it offends the public interest. The best way to help immigrants is to help them become insiders as fast as possible.

It is possible to defend these propositions without exaggerating the threat of an emerging two-culture society. Foreigners aiming to make headway in America know they and their children cannot go far without English – can’t even watch ”Dynasty.” So they learn our tongue. A study by the Rand Corporation last year found that 90 percent of first-generation Mexican-Americans are proficient in English, and more than half of the second generation speak nothing but.

Nothing in this should discourage speakers of other languages to celebrate their own tongues and heritage, or to deny them respect. America’s English-speaking children, meanwhile, need more, not less foreign-language study. But what the California Legislature will do with Proposition 63 is unknown. A half-dozen smaller states have also adopted ”official English” but have done little to implement it. California is big, and a pace-setter. Proposition 63 requires vigil. Perhaps California will apply the new law with sensitivity, setting a benign example. The tone of the campaign suggests the danger of a harsher precedent, one that could bring much harm elsewhere.

English is, and should be, the language of all 50 states. It’s not at all clear that any law or constitutional amendment is needed to make it so.

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