Published in The Enterprise, 1-5-98

English-as-Official-Language Legislation – Divisive, Unwarranted and Disrespectful

by Rocky Anderson

engl-only-2.jpgOur property taxes are skyrocketing; we haven’t figured out how to resolve our burgeoning inter-city transportation problems with anything more innovative or efficient than more highways; we still pay a regressive sales tax on food; there is no coordinated planning to stem urban sprawl; our classrooms are overcrowded; our state income tax system is outrageously unfair to the middle class; our open spaces, including our canyons, are being paved over by developers who seem to own many of our elected local officials; most of us have fewer physician choices, yet are paying more than ever for medical services; and affordable housing in the Salt Lake City area is as rare as a secular song at a West High choir concert.

With the Utah State Legislature about to convene for yet another session, the crucial question is whether, finally, our legislators will demonstrate vision and wisdom in dealing with fairness in taxation, and with the many long-term problems arising from rapid population growth. Or will we once again be subjected to the silliness and irresponsibility of those legislators who seem to have as their first priorities alienating those who are not part of the “mainstream” and pleasing the noisy, nosy dogmatists who want to tell the rest of us how to live our lives?

From the bills that have been pre-filed, the prospects look dim indeed.

Perhaps the worst of all the unnecessary pieces of proposed legislation is Representative Tammy Rowan?s bill, entitled “English as Official Language of State.” It is certain to engender a lot of controversy, waste a lot of time, anger a lot of people – and not accomplish anything its sponsor says it is intended to accomplish.

What are the purported justifications for a bill making English the “official language” of the State of Utah? If the rationale for such a bill were the elimination of such Utahnese as “Oh, flip!” “Oh my heck!” and “Fer ignernt!,” I’d probably send Rep. Rowan a contribution for her re-election campaign. I’d even support her efforts if the purpose were to help me with my drawling through long vowel sounds. (I still catch myself saying “mel” instead of “mail,” “pell” instead of “pail.”) However, such lofty goals are not behind the “English as Official Language” bill. Rather, the proposal is based upon unfounded assumptions that reflect a condescending insensitivity to the aspirations and efforts of most immigrants.

As with most of the advocates of “English as official language” measures, Rep. Rowan has surmised that, without the legislation, non-English-speaking immigrants won’t ever fit in because they won’t learn our language. Rep. Rowan was quoted in The Salt Lake Tribune recently as saying: “If we make it easy to come here and never learn English, then there is no motivation.”

Really?

And just how “easy” is it “to come here and never learn English?” As it happens, English (albeit in a modified version among many Utahns) is our common language. Without English skills, it is extremely difficult for anyone to do much of anything here. Just try to find your way around on a bus, speaking to the driver in Portugese. Speaking only German, ask your grocery store cashier where the whole wheat bread is located. Try to arrange for a safety deposit box at your local bank, speaking only Italian. Anyone who lives through such difficulties day after day knows it is anything but “easy”.

And upon what data does Rep. Rowan base her conclusion that “there is no motivation” among non-English-speaking immigrants to learn English?

engl-only-2.jpgI suggest Rep. Rowan and all the other official-language advocates become acquainted with Guadalupe School?s Voluntary Improvement Program (VIP). VIP, funded primarily by private contributors in our community, serves over 200 immigrants annually. At VIP, where scores of volunteers provide tutoring each Tuesday and Thursday evening, immigrants participate because they want to improve their lives – and because it is virtually impossible to make it in our society without speaking, reading and writing English. They work hard learning English and obtaining other survival skills, all of which make them better providers for their families, better employees, and better members of our community.

If one wants to base public policy on facts, rather than uninformed speculation, the following should be considered:

  • In the early 1800s, a greater proportion of the American population spoke German than those who speak Spanish today.
  • Today’s immigrants are acquiring English proficiency at the same rate as prior generations of immigrants. While about one-half of Mexican immigrants to California speak English, over 95% of first generation Mexican-Americans are fluent in English and more than 50% of second generation Mexican-Americans do not speak Spanish at all.
  • Immigrants clearly feel a responsibility to learn English. They fill long waiting lists for over-enrolled adult English-as-a-second-language courses throughout the country. In the VIP program, there are currently more than 180 local immigrants on the waiting list, eager to gain proficiency in English.

Instead of pursuing divisive legislation, which will only create further obstacles for those seeking to obtain an education and the skills necessary to be contributing members of our communities, we can take effective steps to help immigrants learn English. For instance, with more resources, including additional facilities and volunteers, VIP could provide survival skills, including English proficiency, to at least twice as many immigrants as are being served now.

Rep. Rowan, if you want to do something that will truly help, give the folks at VIP a call. Two hours of your time each week will do infinitely more to provide English skills to immigrants than any “official language” legislative proposal. And such service would be far more compassionate, more unifying and more respectful of those immigrants who are trying so hard to build a good life for themselves and their families.