With liberty and English for all

In the highly charged debate on curbing illegal immigration, one idea generates a bright display of sparks: mandating English as the US language. It's dubbed either racist or jingoistic, but between those crackling positions there's room for reasoned discussion.

Last month, the Senate sparred over this subject, and sadly, the racist shot was fired. But is it racist to be concerned about the ascendancy of a non-English language in this melting-pot country? Nationally, that language is Spanish, but locally, it can just as easily be Ethiopian or Russian.

Common civic values, not ethnicity or race, unite America. And it takes communication of those values through a single language to hold together the diverse cultures that make the US unique and strong. Look no further than Canada and secessionist-minded French-speaking Quebec to see the splits that develop in the absence of language glue.

Neither is the preservation of English merely overly patriotic. For immigrants, English is the path to a better future – to higher-skilled jobs and meaningful citizenship.

As Congress considers legislation to preserve English as the nation's language, and as English-only bills are pending in nine states (27 states already have them), it's worth examining how endangered English is.

According to the 2000 Census, 92 percent of the US population age 5 and older has no difficulty speaking English. And a recent Zogby poll shows that a vast majority (84 percent), supports English as the national language, including 71 percent of Hispanics. English is the most studied second language in the world, preferred in many venues.

But this reassuring big picture obscures a troubling close-up. The same Census reported that only a little more than half of those who speak only Spanish at home – by far the largest foreign language group in the US – reported speaking English "very well." That's a worrisome skill deficit. Also, a 2004 poll by the Pew Hispanic Center shows 41 percent of Hispanic immigrants do not think newcomers have to speak English to be part of American society. That's a significant minority for whom a melting-pot recipe lacks flavor.

It's no wonder that state and national politicians are unsure whether to pass English-only laws that are purely declaratory or ones that require official government communication to be in English – the latter having been successfully challenged in court. Last month, US senators couldn't decide, and passed two English-language measures, one tougher than the other.

Complicating the issue are factors that encourage large and long-lasting Spanish-only enclaves: The size and duration of Hispanic immigration – legal and illegal – is historic, with no pause for full integration.

The best government action is to make it easier for immigrants to learn English. That means finding the right bilingual or English-immersion mix in public schools, and providing the necessary training and funding for English adult-ed. Such classes have long waiting lists in parts of the country, yet federal funding for this instruction has remained flat despite rapidly rising immigration.

English-language laws are one approach, but a problematic one. The more practical idea is to better facilitate English learning. •

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