Dateline

The English-only debate

Andrew Phillips May 5 1997
Dateline

The English-only debate

Andrew Phillips May 5 1997

The English-only debate

Dateline

WASHINGTON

Andrew Phillips

To the extent that Canada impinges on the consciousness of Americans—which is not much at all—it is mainly as a pretty nice place. Polite folks, generous social services, good fishing: that’s about it. So it’s a bit of a shock to find that in some quarters Canada is held out as a warning of the road not to take. The plush Washington offices of U.S. English, the biggest lobby group dedicated to making English the official language of the United States, is one such place. On one wall hangs a framed copy of a magazine ad showing North America fragmenting, with Quebec breaking off in one direction, Texas in another. “It can’t happen here (or can it?)” it reads ominously, with the explanation that official bilingualism in Canada has meant “billions” of wasted tax dollars, slower growth and “a populace bitterly divided on the issue.” The message is clear: language means trouble.

The United States has many problems, but language, it would seem, is not one of them. Census figures show that 97 per cent of Americans over the age of five are fluent in English, and most people would agree that speaking English is one of those things, like a love of cars and an aversion to government, that makes Americans . . . Americans. But look again. Just below the surface, language is a hot issue. The United States is experiencing its biggest wave of immigration since the turn of the century; 32 million Americans speak a language other than English at home, and surveys show more and more people expressing frustration that they just can’t make themselves understood when they take a cab or order a burger. Twenty-three states—from California through much of the West to the entire South—have adopted laws declaring English their official language. The House of Representatives passed such a law last August by 259 votes to 169. Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that “without English as a common language, there is no [American] civilization.” The Senate did not vote on the

bill, but it has been reintroduced into the new session of both houses of Congress.

U.S. English has ridden that wave, and helped to create it as well. It is led by a personable and energetic architect, 56-year-old Mauro Mujica, who may be the perfect person to sell the message. Mujica came to the United States from Chile as a 23-year-old student. He had to learn English to succeed in America, and as a Hispanic he can hardly be accused of bias against the country’s

Just below America’s surface, language is a hot issue

biggest non-English-speaking group. Mujica preaches a classic American value: the melting pot. ‘We’re a multicultural society," he says, “but there are more and more forces tearing us apart. We’re trying to preserve the melting pot ideal: wherever you come from, you join a common culture with a common language—English.” Those who want the government to promote their Spanish heritage at the expense of English, he says, are condemning their children to be busboys and gardeners. In America, English is the undisputed language of success.

The organization has grown quickly since Mujica took over as chairman in 1993. Founded 10 years earlier by S. I. Hayakawa, the late senator from California who was born in Vancouver of Japanese parents, U.S. English ran into controversy in the late 1980s. Some leaders complained publicly that Hispanics were breeding too fast; the officials were accused of racism, and the group was discredited. When Mujica took over, it had just 165,000 members. Now, it is close to announcing that it has a million paid-

up members, with a Washington staff of 15 and a budget of $15 million a year. “I wanted to make it professional, and fight this fight like adults,” Mujica says.

The result is a well-funded campaign that pushes the issue both in Washington and around the country. U.S. English wants to reduce the scope of bilingual education and put the emphasis instead on teaching English to new immigrants. And it warns that new efforts to win statehood for Puerto Rico, where 75 per cent of the population speaks only Spanish, could result in the United States acquiring what Mujica calls “our own built-in Quebec.” For the most part, though, official English advocates are sufficiently knowledgeable— and polite—to agree that Canada’s language situation is not comparable to that south of the border. Spanishspeakers are not the majority in any state; there is no Hispanic Lucien Bouchard pushing separation.

In the past, critics often wrote off the official-English movement as a reactionary throwback, even a cover for naked anti-immigrant views. And it is true that a smaller rival group to U.S. English, called English First, has links to the extreme right. But it is hard to tar U.S. English with that brush: its advisory board includes such luminaries as novelist Saul Bellow and broadcaster Alistair Cooke. The bigger question is what the real impact of official English might be. State laws vary widely; some merely give English symbolic status akin to the state bird or flower, while others forbid the use of other languages on such documents as driver’s licences or voting ballots. The federal bill endorsed by U.S. English is relatively mild: it would ban other languages on ballots and in citizenship ceremonies, for example, but make exceptions for emergency and health services.

What does it all mean? Mujica argues that official English addresses practical problems like misguided bilingual education and costly printing of government documents in other languages. But it is hard not to conclude that what fuels it is something else: a search for absolutes at a time when society is fragmenting. That is less concrete, but, for many Americans, no less important.