English Only, But Where?

It didn't take long for Utah's new law making English the state's official language to wind up in court.

Maybe that's appropriate. The courtroom is one official venue where a standard of "English only" is hard to maintain. Non-English speakers appearing in court need to understand what's going on if justice is to be served.

Utah's law is in sharp contrast to the moves in California to offer court interpreters for 13 languages. The most recent additions are Armenian, Cambodian, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Punjabi. Dozens of other languages are sometimes interpreted, and it's estimated that 214 languages are spoken in California.

The Utah measure passed by voters last month did in fact make an exception for judicial proceedings - and for law enforcement, public-safety needs, and state-tourism promotion. After all, the state will host the Winter Olympics in 2002.

The perplexed judge who blocked enforcement of the new law noted, "It covers everything except the exceptions, and the exceptions cover everything." He had doubts about how the law could be put into effect.

Such laws, which now exist in half the states, may in fact have more symbolic import than legal impact. They try to give force of law to a useful social goal: a common language. But they're a blunt method of assimilating immigrants, mainly Spanish speaking. The best response is beefed-up English instruction in public schools that will plug the youngest newcomers into the linguistic mainstream.

Meanwhile, adults who haven't yet mastered English will need to be accommodated in many places.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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