English Only Update II

              English Only Bill May Exempt Native Americans

              By James Crawford

              December 7, 1995


Changes for passage of English-only legislation seemed to be significantly enhanced, following a Dec. 6 hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Chances also seemed enhanced for amendments that would exempt Native American languages from some of the bill's restrictions, fostering a divide-and-conquer strategy against the legislation's opponents.

The committee heard testimony from eight witnesses in favor of S. 356, a measure that would declare English the nation's official language and severely restrict the federal government's use of other languages for public business. No opposing witnesses were invited to testify. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chair of the committee, announced his intention to convene a second hearing at an unspecified date "early next year" when other views might be heard.

Advocates for language-minority groups protested their exclusion from the hearing, describing it as part of a troubling pattern. Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, noted that when a House education subcommittee heard testimony on similar "Language of Government" bills Nov. 1, the Republican majority allowed seven witnesses in favor and only one against. "What are proponents of English-only so afraid of?" he asked. "That a balanced hearing will reveal the inherent flaws of this legislation?"

Held on a day when the U.S. role in Bosnia commanded most senators' attention, the hearing attracted only three members of the Governmental Affairs committee. Besides Stevens, two Democrats were present for part of the proceedings, only one of whom, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), expressed reservations about S. 356. Akaka began by agreeing with proponents' goal of "promoting linguistic unity" but said he worried that an English-only mandate might be disriminatory and ethnically divisive. He announced his plan to introduce amendments that would limit the legislation's impact on Native American languages.

Sen. Stevens expressed his sympathy for the latter idea, noting his earlier support for the Native American Languages Acts and the Alaska Native Languages Act. (These recent laws endorse, among other things, the policy goal of preserving indigenous languages and authorize small grants for that purpose.) It was not clear whether Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chief sponsor of S. 356, was equally amenable. Testifying before the committee, Shelby asserted that 323 languages are now spoken within the borders of the United States. If some are accommodated by government-sponsored programs, when will "multilingual demands" end? he asked. "The question is that if we choose to perform these federal services in several languages, how can we possibly say no to the individuals who speak Chinook Jargon or Micmac?"

Stevens made it clear that his support for the legislation reflects concerns about the growth of immigrant languages and about bilingual education, which he charged has sometimes denied English-speaking children access to schooling in their native tongue. Recalling his close friendship with the late Sen. S. I. Hayakawa, founder of the modern English-only movement, Stevens said: "I share Sen. Hayakawa's aversion to the balkanization of California ... [with its southern half becoming] a Spanish-speaking state. California has tried to resist that, and I think nationally we ought to resist that."

For more than a decade, language-minority advocates have maintained a united front against the English-only movement. While it is widely acknowledged that immigrants are the primary target of this campaign, Native Americans have also suffered from its legal and political fallout. This year, for the first time, some of the latter now believe that they might be wise to make a "separate peace" with language restrictionists. It is tempting to argue that indigenous languages, which predated English on American soil, have a prior moral claim that immigrant languages do not have, and that federal programs for Native Americans should therefore be exempted from any English- only mandate.

Sen. Stevens appears to be receptive to this logic and it is possible that other Western Republicans may be as well e.g., Senators McCain, Domenici, Campbell, Murkowski, and Hatch. Because these senators have previously spoken out against English-only measures, opponents had felt that chances for defeating the legislation are better in the Senate than the House (where one bill, H.R. 123, now has 191 cosponsors; 218 votes are needed to pass legislation). Now prospects are less clear, especially since no senator has stepped forward this year to stage a forceful attack on S. 356. Still, the Senate vote is likely to be close. It could make a crucial difference if Native American groups drop their opposition in exchange for amendments to mitigate the bill's impact on their languages.

English Plus advocates argue that such a deal would be short-sighted in any case. First, there would be no practical way to exempt indigenous languages from all the legal effects of the English-only bills now under consideration. While it might be possible to shield some Native American programs, S. 356 and H.R. 123 would (despite their sponsors' denials) seem implicitly to repeal the Bilingual Education Act. This could prove devastating to American Indian and Alaska Native schools, which rarely have alternative sources of support for native-language programs. Currently children from more than 70 Native American language groups are being served by federal bilingual education grants. When these grants are terminated, the programs are usually terminated as well.

Second, there would be no way to exempt Native Americans from the political impact of an English-only law. Xenophobes tend not to make fine distinctions. For many if not all English- only advocates, the intent is to harass and denigrate people who look, sound, and live differently from members of the dominant culture. Native peoples meet these criteria as well as Hispanic and Asian immigrants. Even if enacted in a purely symbolic form, with no legal teeth, an English-only law would legitimate and encourage chauvinism toward all minority languages e.g., when it came time for Congress or state legislatures to appropriate money for language preservation programs. Public attitudes, now largely indifferent to the fate of endangered languages, would likely be harder to change or even become more hostile.

On other issues, the Senate hearing featured familiar arguments by familiar witnesses, including Shelby, Reps. Toby Roth (R-Wisc.) and Bill Emerson (R-Mo.), and Mauro Mujica, president of U.S. English, all of whom had previously testified before the House early childhood, youth, and families subcommittee. As in the House hearing, proponents recruited an array of first- generation immigrants to regale the committee with arguments about the importance of learning English in the United States.

Shahab Qarni, a Pakistani, told senators that, as a world language, "English was the only thing that helped me survive" when stranded in various foreign airports. Sayyid Syeed, a Kashmiri linguist, testified that learning English is now a Muslim "religious duty" since it has become the language of the Koran for non-Arabic speakers. Miroslava Vukelich, a Serbian immigrant, also described English as "spiritually uplifting" and argued that making it official would "empower [Americans] to communicate and interact with one another and [avoid] the problems that confront the country of my birth, Yugoslavia." (She neglected to mention that most parties to the Bosnian conflict speak dialects of a single language, Serbo-Croatian.)

Few challenges were raised to the witnesses' testimony, except by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) in the matter of demographic claims being advanced by U.S. English. Citing census projections, Mujica said that the number of non-English-speakers is expected to reach 43 million, or 11.5 percent of the U.S. population, by the year 2050. But Dorgan referred to a letter from the Census Bureau, which reported there were 1.8 million non-English speakers (0.8 percent of U.S. residents) in 1990 and denied making any projections about future language use. Challenged to explain where he got his estimate, Mujica responded, "books and articles." Pressed harder, he conceded, "I couldn't tell you."

Without being challenged, Rep. Roth earlier made a more extravagant claim: that one in seven Americans do not speak English. Roth cited as his source the National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. In fact, according to the census, approximately one in seven U.S. residents spoke a language other than English in the home in 1990.

The latter population increased substantially between 1980 and 1990, as shown by an analysis of census data by Dorothy Waggoner, in her newsletter Numbers and Needs, Nov. 1995 (available from Box G1H/B, 3900 Watson Place, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20016). But among foreign- born residents who speak other languages at home, the percentage who speak English "very well" increased more rapidly i.e., they are becoming more bilingual.

Editorial note: If this report leads you to sense that the English-only threat looms larger than at any time in the past decade congratulations you've gotten the message. Unfortunately, not many others have.


Comments? Email me at: jwcrawford@compuserve.com

Copyright © 1995 by James Crawford. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this article for free, noncommercial distribution, provided that credit is given and this notice is included. Requests for permission to reproduce in any other form should be forwarded by email.