If the proposition to make English the “official” language had been on the ballot here, I would have voted against it. But if I had been living in Florida, where it was on the ballot, I might have been a part of the majority that voted “yes.”

The difference is that in Washington, as in most of the country, English, as a matter of practical fact, is the official language. In south Florida, where the ability to speak Spanish can be a requirement for a number of service sector jobs, government sanction of bilingualism can make the English-only speaker decidedly uneasy.

The unease was enough to lead voters in three states — Florida, Arizona and Colorado — to support English-as-the-official-language propositions, bringing the total of such states to 17.

It’s hard to know what to make of the trend. Is it based on the fear that America will go the way of Quebec, where aspirants to public office must speak both English and French? Is it out of concern that Hispanic immigrants, reinforced in their native tongue, will fail to learn English and thereby damage their chances for acculturation and economic success? Is it a gut reaction to some “brown peril,” a bigoted fear that “they” are taking over?

In fact, it appears to be all those things. John Tanton recently quit as chairman of US English, the force behind the official-English propositions, when opponents surfaced a 1986 memo in which he referred to the high birth rate and low educational levels of Hispanic immigrants and posed the question: “As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?”

Linda Chavez resigned as president of the group a few days after Tanton’s resignation, apparently fearing to be branded as an anti-Hispanic Hispanic.

But many backers of the official-English movement seem free of any hint of anti-Hispanic bias. Indeed, many of them, including Chavez and new acting chairman Stanley Diamond, are of Hispanic background.

Their concerns, they insist, are for the unity of the nation and the good of the immigrants themselves.

“Our concern is about such things as bilingual education and bilingual ballots. The voters deeply resent these things,” Diamond said in an interview last week.

Why? “Because this is our land and our country. English is the language which we, descendants of immigrants, when we came here, had to take a personal responsibility to learn. There is a message in a ballot printed in a language other than English that says, ‘Look, you don’t have to learn English. You can participate in the American society, you can even vote, without having to learn English.’ That is a disincentive to our Hispanic immigrants to learn English.”

But what would be the effect of making English the official American language? Certainly it would make no sense to prohibit official warning signs in languages other than English, or to end efforts to recruit bilingual police officers or welfare caseworkers.

The two things that US English officials keep coming back to are ballots and bilingual education. I have no difficulty with the notion that the ability to read an English language ballot is a small enough price to pay for the privilege of voting.

But what’s wrong with bilingual education? Very little, in theory. But as it too often works out in practice, it can impede the grasp of English. In many cases, opponents say, bilingual instruction reinforces linguistic and cultural separation.

The larger question, though, is whether local governments confronted with large numbers of non-English speakers should accommodate to them or whether the greater accommodation should be made by the immigrants themselves.

Given that newcomers can see the obvious advantages of learning English, I am inclined to say that it shouldn’t be necessary to install English as an official language. Wouldn’t it make more sense for government simply to take steps to eliminate discrimination against immigrants and leave it to the immigrants themselves to learn English?

But then I look at a Miami, where the disadvantages are more likely to accrue to those who cannot speak Spanish, where it is not difficult to imagine a successful mayoral campaign being undertaken by a candidate who speaks little or no English, and I wonder if those who fear the “Quebecking” of sections of America may not just have a point.



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