English the essential ingredient to make American stew

There’s nothing like an enveloping coastal Maine fog on successive vacation days to focus the mind on a troubling issue.

For months I had been tossing around the question as to whether I favored declaring English the nation’s official language. No more. I do.

The fog cleared my mind if not my vision, although some will doubtless claim it did the exact opposite.

Of course, I’m well aware that a decision in favor leaves one open to charges of everything from political incorrectness to bigotry and racism.

And, unfortunately, in some cases those charges are true, which is exactly why the issue troubled me, as it does others.

Also, regrettably, official English has entered the presidential election race.

President Clinton and his administration, although by no means all Democrats, oppose the bill, dubbed the “English Empowerment Bill of 1996,” whereas Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole, and most Republicans, support it.

The bill passed the U.S. House recently along party lines, 259 to 169. The U.S. Senate, according to Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, will consider it sometime in September.

The proposed legislation would require the federal government to conduct its official business in English, ending the current practice of printing some publications in languages other than English. Exceptions would include language teaching and international publications, public health and safety.

One reason for federalizing would be to standardize procedures nationally, because 23 states, 41 counties and 15 cities already have passed “official English” laws. Massachusetts has not.

In Massachusetts election ballots are printed in both English and Spanish in five cities: Boston, Chelsea, Holyoke, Lawrence and Springfield. Under the proposed federal law, state and local governments could still opt to print ballots in English and a second language.

There is another aspect to this question. It is felt that those favoring official English are also against bilingual education in the schools. I can live with this inference, too.

In fact, I go along with the Quincy school system, which would like to test whether intense English immersion (see the picture, say the word; working up to simple phrases and sentences) might do more for non-English speaking students, and do it faster, than the current bilingual approach.

But, you guessed it, there’s a law against that in Massachusetts. Under a 1971 law, communities must offer bilingual classes if the school system has 20 or more non-English speaking students with the same native language.

Quincy already runs bilingual classes in Cantonese, the largest linguistic minority in the city. Last fall the state Department of Education ordered it to start a similar program for Vietnamese students, who now number more than 20.

Carol Lee Griffin, assistant school superintendent in Quincy, says she has been seeking two Vietnamese-speaking teachers, but thus far has found only one. She is disappointed that state law will prevent Quincy from testing its English immersion program but will try to have the law changed.

It’s not that critics of bilingual education want to discourage young people from keeping up with the language and culture of the country they came from. Quite the opposite, but they do feel this can be done outside school. In Quincy, for instance, there is the Chinese Language School.

As Griffin points out, as of this coming fall there will be bilingual programs in both Cantonese and Vietnamese, but before another year goes by Quincy may be required, under the 1971 law, to add programs in Spanish and Arabic with no reimbursement from the state.

A total immersion program has much to recommend it. An interesting letter to the editor in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago by a Michael Reyes of the Bronx in favor of official English and against bilingualism says much.

Reyes, a non-English speaking, Spanish-born child brought to this country by his parents, was enrolled, according to his letter, in an inner-city school in a crime-infested neighborhood in the Bronx. He has just graduated summa cum laude from Hunter College and is now going to law school at Columbia.

“I owe my current situation to a lot of factors,” he wrote,” but bilingual education is not one of them. After two futile years in a bilingual class I was erroneously placed in a regular class.

“I felt compelled to learn English in order to be part of the in-group. When I was in the bilingual program, I felt no need to learn English, because I could speak Spanish with most of my teachers, my classmates, my family, my neighbors and the bodega merchant.”

Reyes, who was responding to a letter writer who claimed there was no likelihood of segregated linguistic ghettos in America, said “linguistic ghettos are not a possibility; they are a reality. I hope the House bill is a prelude to the reform, if not the end, of bilingual education.”

So back to official English.

There seems to be a very fundamental issue at stake here. Do we believe that America is a nation of Americans, of a united people who have adopted the cultural history and traditions of America. And isn’t the English language one of the cornerstones of that history?

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a Pulitzer prize-winning history professor, put it pretty bluntly in an article in the Wall Street Journal a few years back: “To deny the essentially European origins of American culture is to falsify history.”

He added: “If we repudiate the quite marvelous inheritance that history has bestowed on us, we invite the fragmentation of our own culture into a quarrelsome spatter of enclaves, ghettos and tribes.

The rejection of the melting pot points the republic in the direction of incoherence and chaos.

But why do we have to make it official, which the Clinton folks consider unnecessary?

Because, as the letter writer from the Bronx points out, our language is part of the glue that draws us together. Giving the language emphasis underscores, stimulates and encourages those who arrive here as legal immigrants to rapidly absorb the culture they chose to adopt.

Ian Menzies’ column appears regularly in Wednesday editions of The Patriot Ledger.

Comments are closed.