Guest Commentary: National Language Will Bind Us

March 14, 2012


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I am constantly baffled by the contradictions among our cultural and media elites when it comes to proposals for establishing the English language as the official language of our nation. Although they admit the necessity of English proficiency for both educational and economic advancement, they habitually oppose any policy proposal to establish English as our national language.

No law can or should compel individuals to give up their native tongue, and no one is proposing to do that. Yet clearly, there are steps we can take to encourage acquisition of essential English language skills by immigrants and newcomers. That is what a bill in Congress, the English Language Unity Act, seeks to do. It requires that all official business of the federal government be conducted only in English.

A study sponsored by the Denver Public Library in the last five years found that about 75 percent of Hispanic families are bilingual at home. That should surprise no one. First-generation immigrant families have historically been bilingual, whether Italian, Ukranian, Vietnamese or Pakistani. The problem is not foreign languages spoken in private homes.

Increasingly, the problem is the lack of incentives for new arrivals to learn the English language while at the same time there is a proliferation and celebration of native languages and cultures in school classrooms and the popular media.

The fact is, the conduct of official government business in foreign languages — at the federal, state or local level — sends the wrong message to new immigrants, legal or illegal. That practice tells new arrivals it is OK to retain your native tongue and postpone learning English. The message is: “We will accommodate you.” That is a message previous generations of immigrants did not hear, and it is a message that undermines and obstructs assimilation.

Why should any foreign national — whether tourist, foreign student, business traveler, or immigrant — be offended by the requirement that they conduct official government business in English? What other country of the world makes it so easy not to learn the native tongue? Can you do business with the Mexican government without learning Spanish or using a translator? Can you do government business in Poland while speaking Spanish? Can you do government business in France while speaking Farsi?

The proposed federal law would affect only official federal government business and government documents, not private businesses or other institutions. Banks, auto dealers and other commercial enterprises would still be free to advertise and do business in other languages if they choose, and customers are free to patronize those businesses or not. That’s freedom of association and freedom of choice.

Government business is a different matter entirely. Conducting official government business in foreign languages makes no sense except as a pandering to the cult of multiculturalism.

Everybody understands that lack of English language skills is a major barrier to the social and economic advancement of immigrants, yet proposals to promote this goal are routinely slandered as “xenophobic.” A true xenophobe would want to hold foreign-born individuals back, not help them move forward with additional incentives for learning English.

In the political arena, is it not contradictory to require naturalized citizens to pass an English language exam but then offer bilingual ballots for the act of voting? Such a policy strongly implies that the English language exam for citizenship is only symbolic, not substantial. But how can new citizens participate fully in debates and discussions about issues and candidates if they really can’t read, write or speak English? Providing a ballot in a foreign language sends a confusing and hypocritical message: “We want your vote, but not your participation.” A mailed-in foreign language ballot is about as American as a Yugo assembled in Brazil.

No one law can fix this problem, but the federal government can set a good example. The English Language Unity Act is a good first step.

Tom Tancredo represented Colorado’s 6th Congressional District from 1999-2009 in the U.S. House of Representatives and finished second to John Hickenlooper in the 2010 Colorado gubernatorial race.

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