Speaking English best way to unite the nation
Ventura County Star
July 31, 2006

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By Thomas D. Elias, tdelias@aol.com
July 31, 2006

There's something innately self-destructive about Latino protests over a section of the U.S. Senate's proposed immigration reform bill that would declare English the national language of this nation.

Nothing in that provision would prohibit anyone from speaking Spanish or Italian or Chinese or Vietnamese or Russian or Tagalog or Hebrew or Armenian or any of the 87 non-English languages listed as native tongues by California residents in the most recent Census.

In fact, the more Americans can speak those languages and the more they are taught in public schools, the better for this country in its efforts to remain the world leader in commerce and technology.

But when you have 87 native languages in a single state, when you have children with 83 native languages in a single school district the case today in Los Angeles it's hard to develop any sense of unity. From the earliest eras of immigration to America, learning English was the great unifying force, the single skill that most distinguished "greenhorns" from others.

Yes, there may be outright bigotry among some advocates of making English the national language. But just because some bigots like an idea does not make that idea immoral.

In fact, learning English is the best thing today's immigrants can do for themselves, and they apparently know it better than many of the politicians who pose as advocates for them. That's why thousands now have their names on waiting lists to learn English at public adult schools around California.

"We already know English is the language of commerce and success," says Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, perhaps today's most charismatic Latino politician. Villaraigosa, who flat-out laughs at the notion that Mexican immigrants would like the American Southwest to revert to Mexico, insists that "We or our parents came here because it's not Mexico; we don't want it to become Mexico."

But he nevertheless opposes the notion of making English the national language. "There's no need to do this right now," he says, noting that the official-English amendment offers no funding to let local schools teach more English classes to immigrants. So the idea is a waste of time, he says, as it would not change a thing.

But he's wrong about that. For one thing, it would put all immigrants on notice they must learn English because at any time governments could cease providing election ballots or other materials in foreign languages.

In fact, that might not be such a bad idea. With English literacy an alleged requirement (obviously not well-enforced) for naturalization of new citizens, there should be no need for ballots in Spanish or any other foreign tongue. If everyone eligible to vote is already supposed to know English, why spend the time and money printing materials in other languages?

The reason for those ballots is a 1975 amendment of the federal Voting Rights Act, and no one in Congress wants to risk being called a bigot by questioning its provisions.

But why should people be assisted in voting, if they in effect say in requesting a non-English ballot that they don't understand the language in which public policy is almost exclusively debated in this country? By definition, English-illiterate citizens will be casting uninformed ballots.

Some will cry "racism" when they hear this point debated. But it's the very opposite. Encouraging immigrants to learn English well enough to vote and discuss policy in it would have the ancillary effect of increasing their employability and participation in other aspects of American life.

What's more, it will make them feel more American and less a exile from whatever land they came from.

If there's anything this country needs a lot today, it is a sense of unity. Historically, learning English has been the most certain way immigrants have acquired a sense of being one with this country, part of its flesh, and of disavowing political loyalties to their countries of origin.

All of which means that so-called immigrant advocates who oppose declaring English the national language are really working against the interests of the very people they purport to represent.

Thomas D. Elias, of Santa Monica, is a columnist and author. His e-mail address is tdelias@aol.com.