ENGLISH-AS- A-NATIONAL-LANGUAGE DEBATE FORGES AHEAD

The fight to make English the official language of the United States is not just a war of words these days as legislation makes its way through Congress and gains the support of the Republican leadership.

''This is an issue whose time has come,'' says Jim Boulet, executive director of English First. His organization is lobbying for a bill to require that all federal publications, including election ballots, be printed in English and to abolish the Office of Bilingual Education.

''Immigrants never asked for these services - they want to learn English and their children want to learn English - but immigrants get blamed for the cost of these services,'' Boulet says.

Senate majority leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both Republicans, have endorsed the idea of making English the official US language. But Democratic President Clinton has sided with advocates of multiculturalism. ''The issue is not whether English is our language,'' he has said. ''It is. The issue is whether or not we're going to value the culture [and] the tradition of everybody.''

Hearings on official language legislation are scheduled in the House of Representatives for Oct. 18, while the largest organization in favor of English as the official language, US English, says it is attracting 5,000 new members a month.

''What we're seeing reflects a rather widespread concern that somehow this country is losing its identity,'' says Jack Sweeney of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who believes Americans feel overwhelmed by the global information revolution that now pipes everything from Kuwaiti cable news to Spanish soap operas into their homes.

As a result, some immigrants find all the information they need to survive in their native tongue and the ''overriding environmental pressure'' that hurried immigrants down the path to assimilation a generation ago ''has become too diffuse,'' Sweeney says.

All US tax forms except a few peculiar to Puerto Rico are published in English.

But Karin Cordell, a curriculum expert for Washington, D.C., public schools, said immigrants are shifting into English more quickly than ever before.

Even without the simmering official language debate, Cordell said, ''most immigrant students coming from poor countries already get the message that you are not American if you don't speak English.''

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