Learning English is Not the Issue Some Would Have You Believe

President Clinton has been dancing around the political sombrero ever since Newt Gingrich declared the need for a law establishing English as the United States’ official language.

The president’s response was, “Well, of course” English is this country’s language. But Clinton hedged about whether he would sign the bill, which is pending in the Senate.

It’s all symbolism, of course. English already is the de facto language of this country – indeed, English is the major language of international commerce, as well. Yet you wouldn’t know it from hearing the politically charged rhetoric to the contrary.

Before the U.S. House of Representatives passed the English Language Empowerment Act of 1996, Speaker Gingrich, the historian, said, “It is vital historically to assert and establish that English is the common language at the heart of our civilization.”

That’s true, to a point. When the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were drafted, this nation’s Founding Fathers had few qualms about translating those documents and many other writings into other languages.

The “official English” debate is not new. By the late 1700s, Benjamin Franklin made it plain in his writings that he despised Pennsylvania’s German settlers, terming them “boors” who were destroying the young American nation.

Why was Franklin so upset?

One reason was “class.” Most of the German settlers were rural people with little education. Another reason could have been voting ballots. In Pennsylvania towns with large populations of German-Americans, ballots were written in both German and English. Seem familiar?

Today, federal law requires that ballots include instructions in foreign languages where a substantial percentage of registered voters are of foreign origin.

The law was meant to help naturalized U.S. citizens – particularly the elderly – understand the voting process and remove any possibility of fraud. Unfortunately, some people have perceived those good intentions as an assault on English.

The legislation now before the Senate would allow foreign-language instruction in the schools and the use of popular non-English phrases already in use – E Pluribus Unum being one.

Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole also has been dancing around that political sombrero. He supports the “official English” bill and is against bilingual education. Yet he also says that he supports using foreign languages in a limited form to help immigrant children learn English.

And, although Dole believes that English should be the only language on an American voter’s ballot, he seems to have no misgivings about using Spanish-language radio and television to court Hispanic voters in Florida and other states with large Latino populations that vote.

Hey, no one said hypocrisy is confined to one political party.

The reality is that some candidates want to use language as a wedge issue to their advantage. Yet history has shown that, within the first generation after an immigration, English takes precedence and that half the people in that next generation lose the mother tongue.

Studies in Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles have shown that, in households where parents speak a foreign language (be it Spanish, Mandarin or Haitian Creole), more than 90 percent of the kids speak English fluently.

We’re talking about a language-learning curve here, much like what the Germans experienced 200 years ago.

Whether English is “official” or not, when it comes to America’s immigrants, history is repeating itself.

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