The English Language Is The Link For Americans Of All Nationalities

Posted: July 16, 1993

It once was a given that immigrants learned English - the common tongue that, until lately, has held us all together. Thus, in decades past, a Sicilian-born seamstress in New York's Little Italy could have shopped in a bakery owned by a Warsaw native, then greeted her German-born postman on her way home. These simple transactions didn't descend into a Tower of Babel

because grasping English was one of the first, and few, things immigrants were expected to do once they disembarked.

So it is troubling that 76 new Americans were sworn in on the eve of America's Independence Day this month in a ceremony conducted primarily in Spanish rather than English. (At least the actual oath was administered in English.) U.S. District Court Judge Alfredo Marquez, who presided over this country's first foreign-language citizenship rite explained, "Even though the new citizens can speak and understand English, the ceremony is more meaningful to them in Spanish."

My mother got that message when she arrived in America from Costa Rica in 1962. While she had studied some English in high school, she was not proficient. The first thing Marcia Murdock began to do when she settled in Los Angeles with Oscar, my Anglophonic father, was to become fluent in English, first by watching and mimicking television personalities then by practicing with neighbors and co-workers.

Eventually, my mom learned enough English to take her citizenship oath in English, teach in the L.A. city schools for nearly 20 years and earn a master's degree in computer education from Pepperdine University. There's little limit to what immigrants can achieve if they can communicate with English-speakers and not just those in their own language groups.

Of course, the United States of 1962 was another country. Under federal law, the sample ballot for last month's elections in Los Angeles was available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Korean.

In New York City, driver's license applicants can take their written tests in English, Spanish and 21 other languages including German, Russian, Arabic, Albanian and Laotian. Cultural cohesion aside, this practice raises serious highway safety questions. Does a Russian speaker truly understand road signs that read, "Yield," or "Slippery When Wet?"

Immigrants and resident aliens should remain perfectly free to speak Czech, Xhosa or Cambodian at home and in their cultural associations and places of worship. But when it comes to the public arena, where we all contend with each other, there must be at least one strong bond to unite us. Without such a tie, the ongoing fraying of our common social threads will atomize our American culture.

U.S. Rep. Bill Emerson, a Republican from Missouri, has proposed a legislative package called the Language of All Peoples Initiative. It makes perfect sense and can help re-level the linguistic playing field. The initiative comprises three bills, each of which addresses part of this problem:

* One bill states that "the government shall conduct its official business in English." The bill makes exceptions for federal use of foreign languages in cases of public safety, health, justice and education. No one wants to see non-English speakers trapped in a burning building because emergency exit signs were in English only, nor would reasonable people deny such individuals a courtroom interpreter.

* The second would provide a tax credit to those employers who provide English language instruction to their non-proficient employees. This bill recognizes the workplace as one of the best places to learn our tongue and eases the burden on firms which choose to offer English lessons.

* The third applauds the United States' cultural and linguistic diversity yet stresses the value of a common language as a catalyzing element among our richly varied people.

"I believe it is imperative to provide opportunities for people to succeed without language barriers," Emerson explained in a May 4 letter to his House colleagues. "The free-standing bills of the Language for All Peoples Initiative can help achieve this goal."

The most popular bill, concerning the conduct of official business, has 78 co-sponsors. Nonetheless, the package faces tough sledding in a Congress that easily is seduced by the toxic rhetoric of the politically correct.

Challenging and encouraging immigrants to understand English at the ballot box and in classrooms and other public arenas somehow is seen as racist and jingoistic. Too bad. Fortifying the common idiomatic bridges that unite us may spare America from the sort of divisive, separatist frictions that are pitting Anglophones against Francophones in Canada and creating a colossal graveyard out of a place once known as Yugoslavia.

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