House Bills 361 and 888 - virtually identical and prime-sponsored by Reps. RoseMarie Swanger (R., Lebanon) and Scott Perry (R., Dillsburg) - would make English the official language for all acts of state government.
Individuals could "choose their own primary language . . . for private conduct."
At the federal level, two Republican lawmakers, Rep. Steve King of Iowa and Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, recently introduced "The English Language Unity Act of 2011," requiring all official U.S. government functions to be in English.
Proponents say such laws promote cultural unity and encourage immigrants to learn English.
Opponents say the primacy of English is self-evident, and enshrining it in law is unnecessary. Moreover, they say, immigrants already are highly motivated to learn.
The debate parallels the clash of views over the best ways to assimilate legal immigrants and discourage illegal immigration.
Surveys show that about half the world's countries have one or more official languages. About 82 percent of the U.S. population claims English as a mother tongue; 96 percent say they speak it "well" or "very well," according to the U.S. Census.
For 21/2 hours in Harrisburg last week, the State Government Committee chaired by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), a leading critic of the Obama administration's immigration policies, heard testimony on the state legislation.
The hearing began with a moment of silence for Philadelphia cheesesteak impresario Joey Vento, who died last month of a heart attack at 71. Vento made headlines around the world by posting a sign at his Geno's shop in South Philadelphia reminding patrons "this is America" and telling them to order in English.
"Language is the tie that binds our society," Perry testified on behalf of his bill, H.B. 888. "If our language doesn't suit you, no one forced you to come here; no one is forcing you to stay."
Suzanne Bibby of ProEnglish, an Arlington, Va., group that describes itself as the nation's leading advocate of official English, testified that "English is the key that unlocks the opportunity of American life." Making English official, she said, "would reaffirm the melting pot."
Tim Schultz of U.S. English, a Washington group founded 30 years ago by former Sen. S.I. Hayakawa of California, cited surveys showing that non-English-speaking immigrants earn as little over a lifetime as U.S.-born high school dropouts. In official-English states, he said, they are more likely to learn the language.
"We all know that we should exercise more, but sometimes life gets in the way," he said. "Immigrants know that they should learn English, but sometimes life gets in the way. There is a difference between what we know is good for us and what we do.
"English is not just a nice thing to get," he said. "It's not like getting an advanced degree. . . . It's a civic obligation."
Since 1906, the federal government has required applicants for naturalized U.S. citizenship to pass simple civics, reading, and writing tests in English.
When Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) took the microphone, she couldn't resist a gentle jab at Metcalfe.
"Gracias, Mr. Chairman," she said. "Buenos dias. Happy to see you here today."
She was far from happy about the legislation, which she branded "unnecessary, punitive, pointless, divisive, self-defeating, and inconsistent with American values," because in her view it alienates newcomers.
Anne O'Callaghan, director of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, a Philadelphia resettlement organization, testified that "the overwhelming majority of immigrants are eager to learn English. They don't need any convincing."
Rather than singling out English, O'Callaghan said, encouraging bilingualism is the better way to make America competitive.
After the hearing, Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told the news website the Raw Story that devoting so much time to official English when the commonwealth has much more pressing problems "is the theater of the absurd.. . . Is this really the most important thing that the General Assembly has to do this week?"
Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or firstname.lastname@example.org.