Official English? Try mandatory Spanish
Arizona Daily Star
Apr. 14, 2005

The star's view: America lags in foreign-language skills as their importance grows. The last thing Arizona needs is to codify our failure. Let's push learning instead.

State lawmakers this week are considering whether to make English the official language of Arizona.
They could adopt measures accomplishing this goal in these closing days of the Legislature, or they could do what they've done already to this resurrected monster and kill it again - then leave town.
There is a third option, one that would move the state from embarrassment toward the forefront of economic development and racial sensitivity. They could push a constitutional amendment requiring that Arizona issue every document, sign and license in both English and Spanish.
The goal would be to help more Arizonans learn Spanish. It would cost too much to require schooling as a matter of law, but imagine the benefit of seeing every word government produces right there beside its Spanish equivalent. Before long, everyone would know that you can't fight "Palacio Municipal" and that "licencia de manejo" is what you show the officer when he pulls you over.
This option, silly as it may sound, makes more sense than the one pushed by Rep. Russell K. Pearce. "It's time to stand up and codify that we are an English-speaking nation," the Mesa Republican said in an interview Wednesday. Pearce is heir to a long history of linking status as a citizen to English fluency.
New Mexico's statehood was delayed until, in the words of one prominent politician, "the migration of English-speaking people who have been citizens of other states does its modifying work with the Mexican element." In 1923, an Illinois law targeted speakers of British English, declaring "American" the official tongue.
The history lesson comes from sociologist April Linton of the University of Washington. In modern times, more than two dozen states have declared English their official language - a movement Linton ascribes more to feelings of patriotism than intolerance.
Either way, it is a backward step.
Arizona lawmakers should be in the vanguard of encouraging all citizens to learn a second language. It would position the state as a serious player in a global economy that lawmakers are anxious to embrace in other ways.
Two other communities illustrate the point. In the nation's most bilingual metro area, Miami-Dade County Public Schools are expanding programs to help all students become literate in at least two languages. In one of the least diverse states, Idaho, high-tech leaders see language as one way to throw the welcome mat to people of color, who are outnumbering whites among new engineers nationwide.
One of Arizona's "Official English" measures seeks to immunize the effort by declaring that its restrictions do not apply to "the teaching of or the encouragement of learning languages other than English." If the sponsors were sincere in this, they would drop their bills altogether.
A better approach comes from the "English Plus," movement, which declared in 2000 "a strong belief that all U.S. residents should have the opportunity to become proficient in English plus one or more other languages."
Census data cited in a 2000 U.S. Senate resolution show only 9 percent of Americans speak their native language and another language fluently, compared to 53 percent of Europeans.
We could turn it around in Arizona - for a start, with mandatory, two-language government documents. For a crash course, try doing your state income taxes in the other language.
Tell lawmakers what you think through the state Legislature's Tucson number, 398-6000.