Department of Motherhood & Apple Pie: Official, no wait, National, no wait, Common and Unifying

Is English the national language or is it a common and unifying language? In a fit of linguistic demagoguery the U.S. Senate would have it both ways. Within the span of a few minutes the Senate declared English to be the national language and then the common and unifying language. Not a single senator voted against both wordings. (Three were not present for the vote.)

On Wednesday, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) submitted an amendment to the immigration reform bill pending action in the Senate that would make English the "national language" of the United States. The United States has never declared an "official" or "national" language, although several of the individual states have. The amendment passed the Senate on Thursday in a 63-34 vote.

The amendment declared that "English is the national language of the United States." The original version had "official language," but Inhofe changed it because a number of senators balked at supporting the amendment with that wording.

The amendment goes on to say:

The Government of the United States shall preserve and enhance the role of English as the national language of the United States of America. Unless specifically stated in applicable law, no person has a right, entitlement, or claim to have the Government of the United States or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services, or provide materials in any language other than English. If exceptions are made, that does not create a legal entitlement to additional services in that language or any language other than English. If any forms are issued by the Federal Government in a language other than English (or such forms are completed in a language other than English), the English language version of the form is the sole authority for all legal purposes.

And it requires those being naturalized as citizens to "demonstrate a sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in everyday life." It leaves it to the Department of Homeland Security to set standards for measuring English proficiency.

But moments after passing the Inhofe amendment, in a 58-39 vote the Senate also passed an amendment sponsored by Ken Salazar (D-CO) which declared the English was the "common and unifying language" of the country. Salazar’s amendment lacked any policy changes or requirements for government action.

In contradiction to the Senate actions, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a second-generation American, took a very sensible position saying today:

The president has never supported making English the national language . . . English represents freedom in our country and anybody who wants to be successful in our country has a much better chance of doing so if they speak English. It is of course a common language, but I don’t see the need to have laws or legislation that says English is the national language.

But Gonzalez was later contradicted by new White House press secretary Tony Snow, who said that the president did indeed support making English the national language.

The debate over this is simply the height of silliness. Language is not ruled by legislation and no act of the Senate will have the slightest impact on how fast or how well immigrants learn English. Studies have shown that overwhelming majorities of immigrants are eager to learn English and if they don’t, it is not for lack of desire or effort.

English is not a threatened language in the United States (or anywhere, for that matter). This is an English-speaking country and all trends indicate that it will remain an overwhelmingly English-speaking country as far into the future as anyone can predict.

The Salazar amendment is fairly innocuous. It doesn’t require or limit any government action and English is indeed the common language of the United States by any measure. Unifying is a bit trickier to measure, but it’s probably that too.

The Inhofe amendment, however, while largely symbolic could cause injury at the margins. If the purpose of government is to serve the people, then the government should make reasonable accommodations to provide information and services in the languages of its constituents. While there is nothing in the amendment to prevent this, it could serve as an excuse not to provide assistance to non-English speakers when such assistance should be provided. It won’t improve the acquisition of English by immigrants and has potential for alienating and disenfranchising them even further.

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