Move to make English sole official language in US

June 20th, 2008 - 12:39 pm ICT by IANS  

By Arun Kumar
Washington, June 20 (IANS) A movement is gaining momentum in the United States to make English its sole official language. The US does not have an official language though English is the native language of 82 percent of the population and 96 percent of the people speak English “well” or “very well”. Advocates say they are not suggesting that English be the only language spoken but that it be the only language used in dealing with government.

Spanish is the second-most common language in the country, spoken by almost 30 million people or 13 percent of the population.

In May 2006, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill that would declare English the national language of the US. But it expired when the Senate and the House of Representatives failed to agree on the legislation.

But proponents keep going to the ballot box with measures that discourage bilingual ballots, notices and documents, USA Today reported.

Thirty states now have laws specifying that official government communications be in English, says US English, a group that promotes the laws. This year such bills are under consideration in 19 legislatures.

The Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a bill in April requiring the majority of state business to be conducted in English. Next month the Ohio House approved a bill making English the state’s official language. The bills are now before the respective senates.

Missouri will decide this autumn on an amendment to the constitution requiring English for “all official proceedings”.

“It’s multiplying tremendously,” says Mauro Mujica, a Chilean immigrant and chairman and CEO of US English. “We’ve made huge progress.”

Critics do not see progress, the American daily said. Some say the increase in the measures nationwide sends a hostile message to newcomers.

“It just poisons the atmosphere in local communities,” says John Trasvina, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defence and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

Typically the proposed laws require that documents, ballots and other communications be published in English. Exempt are communications to protect public health and safety or efforts to promote tourism.

Mujica, who speaks Spanish in his home, says requiring English for official business encourages immigrants to learn English. That will help them to assimilate into US society and prosper in its economy, he says.

“We’re making it too easy for people to function in other languages,” he complains.

But the effectiveness of the movement is in question since federal law sometimes trumps a state’s official English law. For instance, the Voting Rights Act requires certain localities to publish bilingual ballots.

“They’ve raised the level of ire against languages other than English (but) … haven’t really changed the government’s or businesses’ way of doing business,” Trasvina said.

Rob Toonkel, spokesman for US English, says that is not true. He says the laws do not cover everything but ensure that things like driver’s licences, zoning forms and day-to-day activities are overwhelmingly in English.

“We want to be sure (immigrants) are becoming part of America and American society,” he says. “That’s what official English is about.”

There is one issue the two sides appear to agree on - more can be done to help non-English speakers learn English.

Sam Jammal, legislative attorney in MALDEF’s Washington, DC office, says making English classes more available for adult immigrants is a better solution than official English. “We fully agree with that,” Mujica says.

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