Primacy of English

The place of the English language is so secure in the United States (and indeed in much of the world) that the effort by some in Congress to make English the official United States language through the Constitutional amendment process appears superfluous.

As a principle, it is better not to clutter the Constitution with narrow-based issues. Certainly there is no overriding urgency about this one. Surely the Constitution is itself written in some pretty durable English prose.

As is often the case, the concern of some of the language amendment's promoters has less to do with its immediate subject - the primacy of a language - than with other fears. The larger concern is whether the Hispanic minority, the nation's fastest growing ethnic group, poses a threat to Anglo cultural dominance in much of the US. Such a fear should not be dismissed out of hand. In communities like Miami the pressures of rapid cultural change have already produced considerable social tension. Such tension, or the fear of more of it, lies behind much of the effort to rewrite US immigration laws.

The US as an immigrant nation has had to deal with this issue before. It has not always done so successfully. Before World War I, America was made out to be a ''melting pot,'' in which immigrant cultures would dissolve and recombine to form a new, stronger ''American'' alloy. But ethnic identity persisted, to the dismay of many who hoped assimilation and conformity would occur more quickly. Then came an ''Americanization'' phase as national unity was sought during World War I. This view ''that assimilation was to be a one-way process, which deliberately stamped out all vestiges of the immigrant culture, gave rise to ethnocentricism and further kindled the fires of prejudice,'' notes Lubomyr Wynar, Kent State University expert on minority culture and publications. ''The idea that anything 'ethnic' has an inferior status is still prevalent.''

The more positive approach of ''cultural pluralism'' has more recently replaced repressive Americanization. In this view, American society is seen as a mosaic; contributions of immigrant groups are to be appreciated, with immigrants retaining the right to keep their cultural identity. Indeed, Congress in 1971 passed the Ethnic Heritage Bill, which among other things funded various ethnic studies and research centers.

There are in the US some 70 ethnic groups with their own publications, schools, churches, radio stations. The trends generally show a movement from native language to bilingual and English usage over time. German and Japanese groups, which felt the greatest pressure from the two wars to deemphasize their cultural identity, have been among the quickest to shed their ethnic props.

The larger question for the US, posed by the Hispanic influx, is how to prepare politically for the prospect that in two or three decades Hispanics will be more numerous than blacks and Indians are today.

Will the US, through official action, again sow the seeds of resentment - among Hispanics - as it did among many of this century's European immigrants?

The Hispanic issue for the US hardly compares with the French issue in Canada , which spawned the Quebec separatist movement. Eventually Canada accepted a bilingual formula, at the same time supporting the cultural interests of other ethnic groups.

The US is nowhere near that point. It would be better not to write into the Constitution the notion of the cultural inferiority of any non-Anglo group and unwittingly generate a sense of grievance.

Bilingual school programs should be considered temporary, not permanent alternative educational routes. A second language on ballots should be continued only as long as needed to bring new citizens into the electoral process. These issues should be decided on a local basis.

Full participation in US society requires mastery of the English tongue. This incentive is built into all aspects of cultural, educational, business, and political life. It needs no constitutional amendment to enforce it.

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