Monday, May 22, 2006

English Only? No Mas

The Miami Herald editorial page on the Senate’s recent dance with English as the “official” language.

A lot of hot air was spent on an English-only debate in the U.S. Senate last week — and for no good reason. The debate centered around ideological grounds and contributed nothing to the immigration reforms that senators ostensibly were shaping.

Instead of obsessing about a symbolic statement, senators would have been better served to discuss the need for Americans to learn the foreign languages essential to thriving in an increasingly globalized world.

Miami-Dade well knows the self-defeating English-language arguments. Amid a tidal wave of Cuban and Haitian immigrants, county commissioners approved an English-only ordinance in 1980. The law mandated the county to conduct nearly all business in English. Supporters believed it would protect America’s language and culture.

But many Hispanic immigrants, even those who spoke perfect English, believed the law was a slap in the face. The law also was impractical. Instead of encouraging newcomers to learn English, it frustrated them by denying them vital government information in a language that they understood. By 1993, the commissioners who unanimously repealed the law agreed that it had done more to divide the community than to promote unity.

Now the U.S. Senate is treading down the same road. Last week, senators voted to make English the ”national language.” In addition to concerns that such a law could threaten government services and information in other languages, the measure smacks of xenophobia.

English already is a dominant world language. Foreigners take pains to learn it just to get ahead in their own lands. Yet too many Americans limit themselves to their native tongue. While foreign students routinely learn two or more languages, U.S. schools haven’t caught on to the linguistic needs of a global village.

Most U.S. immigrants know that learning English is the ticket to better opportunities. Every immigrant wave — German, Irish, Italian, Chinese, etc. — has assimilated into this great melting pot. Congress shouldn’t mandate the obvious. The Senate should reverse its English-only measure.