Amendment 31: good goal, bad means
Special to the Denver Post
Sunday, October 06, 2002 - Tip O'Neill, the Massachusetts Democrat who once
served as speaker of the U.S. House of
Representatives, once observed that "all politics is local."
Today that could be modified to "all language is political."
No matter what the issue, there seems to be a linguistic angle. For instance,
there was a federal levy known for years as the "estate tax," which seemed an
accurate description - it was a tax on estates.
Republican revisionists, however, decreed that it should be called the "death
tax," even though it is not a tax on death. It's also a bit odd that Republicans
oppose it since the first president to propose such a tax was a Republican,
Theodore Roosevelt. In 1906, he said that "we should ultimately have to consider
the adoption of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount,
either given in life or bequeathed upon the death of any individual," since "no
amount of charity in spending such fortunes in any way compensates for
misconduct in making them."
Consider our discussions about Iraq. The president wants to eliminate Saddam
Hussein. But Bushites don't put it that way. They say they seek "regime change,"
which sounds more like the result of an election than of a war. Presumably it is
a more palatable term.
The military will not use a straightforward word like "invasion." Instead, they
talk about "liberating" Iraq. While this has positive connotations, U.S. GIs
brought back another meaning from World War II, as in "My uncle liberated these
neat smoke grenades from some supply depot."
Of course, given that this administration is headed by oilmen, and that Iraq has
the second largest petroleum reserve in the world, perhaps the "liberation" of
its resources is exactly what they have in mind.
At home, we've got a linguistic issue on our state ballot this year: Amendment
As I read it, it generally requires that instruction in our public schools be
given in English, thus eliminating bilingual education.
If I were dictator of Colorado, I'd revise the state standards so you could not
pass 8th grade until you were fluent in Standard English (the dialect of
business letters and newspaper columns), at least one other common dialect of
(Legalese, Educanto, Ebonics, Blue Collar, etc.) and one non-English language,
like Spanish, German, Latin, Nuche, Italian or Mandarin Chinese.
As advocates for Amendment 31 put it, "children can easily acquire full fluency
in a new language ... if they are heavily exposed to that language in the
classroom at an early age." That's the best time to learn other languages. We'd
understand our own language better if we knew another, and we'd understand our
world better if we knew more languages.
Would it be possible to offer that much language in grade school? I'm proposing
only three, and two are closely related.
Our older daughter, Columbine, spent a year in Iceland as an exchange student
about a decade ago. You don't pass eighth grade there until you're fluent in
five languages: Icelandic, of course; Danish (Iceland used to be a colony of
Denmark), English (especially for the college-bound, because there aren't many
high-level textbooks written in Icelandic), and two more, usually German, French
or Spanish (Icelanders like to vacation in Spain during their long, dark
So it's possible - the country with the highest literacy rate in the world
requires the mastery of a multitude of languages in grade school. For my part,
even though English is my livelihood, often I wish I'd had more than a year of
high-school German and such Spanish as I've been able to absorb over the years.
But I'm not likely to become dictator, so we're back to Amendment 31. Even
though I'd like to see widespread fluency in many languages, who could quarrel
with the goal of English fluency for all?
However, Amendment 31 relies on what is called "parental enforcement" - parents
can sue and recover money if instruction isn't in English, and educators could
be barred from teaching for five years.
Our daughters had an outstanding teacher, Loretta Ordaz, now retired but then
the subject of some folk wisdom at Longfellow Elementary: "Dot your i's and
cross your t's, Ms. Ordaz is hard to please."
On the weekly spelling list for second-graders, she'd throw in a few Spanish
words: amarillo, mariposa, viejo, even salida. I found it quite educational to
go over the list with the kids.
Under Amendment 31, she could have lost her job for that. That's reason enough
to oppose it. Good teachers are rare, and we ought to protect them, not contrive
new ways to harass or fire them.
Ed Quillen of Salida (firstname.lastname@example.org) ) is a former newspaper editor whose column
appears Tuesday and Sunday