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Arizona one more stop on misguided
drive for English-only laws

Commentary by Myriam Marquez

January 25, 1999
©Copyright 1999 Orlando Sentinel

Ever been to a foreign country and needed help understanding the natives?

Ever become sick in a foreign land, and you weren't sure what the doctor was telling you to do?

I've experienced some of those travel trials and tribulations, but in every case eventually someone was found who could speak enough English. Or Spanish, my other language. My four years of French instruction helped, too, but time erases much of what was learned so long ago.

People's eagerness to help was very apparent -- from foreign government offices to private shops, pharmacies and the rest.

In the United States, the language battles often are framed in the rhetoric immigrant-bashing. No sense helping those people, seems to be the refrain. If they want to live here, they must learn English.

Yes, they must. I agree. But learning is not instantaneous; it takes years to be truly fluent.

For older immigrants learning English, accents can be heavy for life.

Accents turn off some native-English speakers. Stereotypes are created, assumptions made about that person's "lack of intelligence" or motivation to learn English.

And when two people who share a language other than English are using it and an English-only speaker walks by and hears the rat-tat-tat-tat of the conversation, that person may well feel left out. Ill feelings take hold: Are they talking about me?

There are people who use their native tongue, be it Spanish or Vietnamese or Russian, as I have heard in stores in Central Florida, perhaps to gossip about others around them. That's rude. But most of the time, people are simply speaking in the language they feel most comfortable using among each other.

The point of all this?

The misguided drive for English-only laws.

Arizona voters narrowly approved one sweeping initiative that barred Arizona state workers from using any language other than English while on the job or while performing official duties. The law even provides for penalties for violators.

The Arizona Supreme Court declared that the law violates constitutional free-speech and equal-protection rights. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand that state court ruling without comment.

What else was left to say?

Such a law would destroy the very core of American freedom. This nation's Founding Fathers concluded as much and, in fact, translated the U.S. Constitution into several languages to spread the word.

Throughout this nation's history, there have been other languages spoken and written in official corners, including bilingual English-German ballots in Pennsylvania during the 1800s.

During Ellis Island days, the courts started to make sure that immigrants charged with crimes had translators, if needed. How else to ensure justice?

A lawyer for Arizonans for Official English said that the Arizona Supreme Court ruling striking down the English-only law would result in "a constitutional mandate for multilingualism on demand."

Not so.

It would ensure that, in cases involving a life-threatening medical emergency or a legal issue, the government would try to find someone to translate. That's what past court decisions pertaining to English-only laws have stated.

English's dominance as the world's premier language for trade, finance and political discourse won't be damaged one iota. And the United States will be ever stronger for such freedom.

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