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DAILY TEXAN (U. Texas-Austin)

'English-only' Betrays Xenophobia

by Brian Winter

January 27, 1999
©Copyright 1999 U-WIRE. All Rights Reserved.

AUSTIN, Texas -- "With statehood , we will not become blue-eyed blondes.Neither will it snow in Puerto Rico. We will remain as we are ... speaking Spanish, eating fritters."

This text, from a commercial on Puerto Rican television in September of 1998, was designed to reassure residents of the commonwealth that statehood would not mean the end of Puerto Rican culture. Ironically, similar ads could prove necessary in the U.S. to convince a paranoid majority that the country's growing number of Spanish-speaking citizens will not result in economic and cultural chaos.

The movement to legislate English as the official U.S. language is completely unnecessary and, at worst, inflammatory. Americans shouldn't forget that this country has always been a nation of immigrants who eventually learn English; legislating an official language would only betray the xenophobia of a dwindling majority.

Many predicate their wish to legislate an official language on the fear that the growing concentration of Spanish-speaking immigrants will provide a linguistic base sufficient to preclude the widespread use of English. However, sheer pragmatism has always dictated the need for a common language in commerce, education and government. The mere efficiency of a unifying language has always provided a far more compelling need for people to learn English than any law ever could.

Even the most remote possibility of a chiefly Spanish-speaking 51st state has fueled the overactive imaginations of those behind the English-only movement. A poll commissioned by U.S. English, Inc., an interest group, found that 74 percent of Americans favor requiring that Puerto Rico establish English as its official language prior to becoming a state. Many argue that admission of the commonwealth would destroy the supposed historical linguistic homogeneity of America.

What homogeneity? This is a nation of immigrants who learned English because they had to. The evolution of a unifying language is not an artificially-engineered concept derived from any rule of law. America has experienced massive influxes of immigrants before, and English still survived as the primary language. Ever met a third-generation Italian American who speaks no English? There's a reason you probably haven't: efficiency.

The existence of a common language benefits America. For this practical reason, English should continue to be the language of our public schools. Schools should conduct classes in Spanish (or whatever language is appropriate) only as a way to integrate students into English-speaking society. The naturally occurring need for a common language would likely spur more Puerto Ricans to learn English to better integrate themselves into the American economic and governmental fabric.

Meanwhile, movements to legislate an official language convey little other than cultural discrimination. The Puerto Rican advertisement cited above was touted by English First, another lobbying group, as the "pro-statehood commercial they don't want you to see!" This allegedly scandalous TV ad simply reassures Puerto Ricans that their cultural and linguistic heritage would remain intact if they chose statehood -- hardly reason to dispatch Sue Ann to "go git the shotgun."

The Roman Empire encompassed countless linguistic groups, but Latin emerged nearly everywhere as the language of trade and government. America may indeed face a future where a large percentage of its population speaks a language other than English. But English will likely remain the widespread de facto language of choice because of its utility as a unifier. No legislation is needed to create this condition. Alarmists who politicize the issue merely betray another unfortunate trend in American history: a rather inexplicable fear of outsiders.

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