English unendangered

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IMMIGRANTS bring the energy of people determined to make better lives for themselves. They also bring their languages and customs - which contrast with those of the majority. A certain amount of honest concern, as well as irrational fear and resentment, results. We see both of these responses at work in efforts to make English the official American language - a distinction it already enjoys in practice. Voters in Florida, Arizona, and Colorado will soon decide whether to amend their constitutions to enshrine English.

These measures may spring from honest concerns about protecting the country's social fabric. But they also attract less honorable motives - fear of newcomers, fear of change, and bigotry.

The fact is, English is hardly being displaced. True, some businessmen in Miami are finding they have to learn Spanish, but is that so bad in a country that has long put off the need to acquire language skills?

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It is probably true that many of the Spanish-speakers who have settled in the United States haven't felt a need to learn English right away. Often their native lands were virtually next door, and their new land had a deeply rooted Hispanic culture of its own. At the same time, bilingual education was taking hold in the country.

Groups like U.S. English, which is behind the current ballot initiatives, sprang up to meet the perceived assault on English. That group recently lost the support of such notables as Walter Cronkite and Linda Chavez, a former aide to Ronald Reagan. They resigned over a memo by the organization's founder, John Tanton, which was anti-Hispanic and anti-Catholic in tone.

The campaign to establish English as an official language all too easily becomes a vehicle for bias against those with different linguistic and racial backgrounds.

The supposed issue - English as an endangered language - is no issue at all. In the world as in the US, English is advancing as the language of commerce and science, air traffic control, and popular culture. Its vitality seems beyond question.

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