In English, Please

LAST December, a federal appeals court struck down an amendment to Arizona's constitution requiring state employees to speak English on the job. The court said the amendment violated First Amendment rights. Earlier, commissioners in Dade County, Fla., repealed an ordinance that established English as the official language. The commissioners said they must acknowledge our multiethnic society.

But now, four ''official English'' bills are pending in Congress, bringing the issue onto the national stage. Proponents of the legislation say by promoting a common language, the government will encourage unity and political stability. Critics say the ''official English'' movement fuels anti-immigration sentiment and challenges free-speech rights.

Both sides are right. And of the four proposals before Congress, one takes both sides into account. The bill introduced by Rep. Bill Emerson (R) of Missouri and Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama would only affect the language of the government. It would exempt essential services (emergency, health, and judicial) but would ensure that most government documents be printed in English only.

Wisely, this measure doesn't target federal bilingual education programs. Without such classes, many non-English speaking students would flounder. The goal of bilingual education should be to immerse students quickly in the English-speaking culture.

What this bill also does not do is interfere with anyone's right to speak the language he or she chooses. A recent court case in Texas provided a chilling reminder of what can happen when the ''official'' language concept is taken too far. A judge ordered - but later rescinded the order - that a woman seeking custody of her daughter speak only English to the child. Speaking Spanish to her was a form of abuse, he said, because she might suffer in school.

On the contrary, the girl likely will be fluent in two languages. The bottom line: Learning other languages is a primary need in our global economy. It's also necessary for this ethnically diverse country to keep its official dealings in its one unifying language.

This bill does not interfere with people's right to speak any language they choose.

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