Why English Should Be Official Language of US

Most Americans favor a law establishing English as the official language of the United States. In an April Gallup poll, 82 percent voted in favor of it, 16 percent against, and 2 percent had no opinion.

Twenty-three states have already made English their official language. Legislation to make English the official language has passed the House and is headed for the Senate. If it emerges from Congress, the White House will have to decide whether to go along or to veto. President Clinton seems to be leaning against the bill. Bob Dole, should he become president, would approve it.

There may be wrinkles to be ironed out in the legislation as drafted, but the desire to preserve English as the principal conduit for business between citizens and their government is a worthy one. The motive of those who support this is not malevolent; those who will be affected by it should not take offense.

Every immigrant to the US who seeks naturalization as a citizen must prove proficiency in the English language. That proficiency enables immigrants - or should enable them - to evaluate the platforms of candidates for election, cast ballots, and generally exercise their rights as citizens. If authorities have to print ballots and conduct other government business in non-English languages for minorities who are citizens but cannot speak English, then the immigration laws are being defied.

Some critics charge that the bill to make English the official language is an attack on people's freedom to speak any language they please. Nonsense. Ethnic and minority groups across America - Poles, Puerto Ricans, Italians - treasure the culture of their homelands.

On St. David's Day, the national day of Wales, I fly a little Welsh flag on my office door to remind colleagues of the contribution that Welshmen have made to US society. But if I spoke Welsh - which I do not - I would not insist on voting on a Welsh-language ballot, nor would I demand in a court case to have my testimony translated from Welsh into English.

The proposed law imposes no disability on American citizens who wish to preserve their ethnic traditions and language. But it would require them to use English in official dialogue with their government, and in the case of states that have passed similar laws, with their state governments.

This is not unreasonable. The genius of the founders of this remarkable country was to welcome the talents of people of all kinds, from all corners of the globe. That diversity of energy and talent is what has made America great. A common language has been the glue binding this diversity into unity. It so happened that the common language was English. Perhaps it could have been French or German. But it was English.

It is not unreasonable, then, while permitting any citizen to speak any other language he or she chooses, to ensure that English remains the same bonding common tongue that it has been since America's inception.

This is not a law to erode the use of Spanish, Chinese, Italian - or even Welsh - wherever they may be spoken in the United States. It is a law to ensure the nonerosion of English as the common tongue.

Neither the nation nor ethnic minorities are well served by making it possible for those minorities to live their entire lives in linguistic ghettos - enclaves where street signs, official notices, court orders, and voting data are offered exclusively in Spanish, or Chinese, or some other non-English tongue. If they are to be integrated into American society, and move upward in it, English is the language of common use, and the language of opportunity.

If one looks at the history of official bilingualism or multilingualism around the world, success stories are few. Only Switzerland comes easily to mind. Elsewhere, the outcome in countries without a common tongue is often fragmentation and disunity. Whites in South Africa were split by the insistence of former Afrikaner governments on making Afrikaans - a little-known or used language anywhere else in the world - an official language equal to English. Disputes over multilingualism have roiled Canada, India, Belgium, and Sri Lanka.

The English language has been a powerful factor against fragmentation in America. There is nothing to fear from underlining its unity.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a professor of communications and director of the International Media Studies Program at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

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