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For US, it's English

IN no greater way is the strength, and generosity, and astuteness, of the United States made manifest than in its embrace of immigrants from many lands. From Germany and Italy and Pakistan and China and the Caribbean and all parts of the world have come individuals and families to take root and flourish as Americans. Most often, their hopes have been fulfilled, their talents have been used to strengthen the US creatively and technologically.

Initially, many of them come speaking languages other than English, such as Spanish, or Chinese, or some European tongue.

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Even those who speak English may have to learn American English -- ``truck'' for ``lorry,'' ``gasoline'' for ``petrol,'' ``trunk'' for ``boot,'' and even ``French fries'' for ``chips.''

When, as a young man new to the United States, I sought directions from a New Yorker with a Brooklyn accent, I spent some time trying to locate ``Poil'' Street. Eventually, I realized that ``Pearl'' Street was what I was after.

But whether the English that immigrants learn is made up of the flattened ``a's'' of New England, or the drawl of Texas, or the staccato breathlessness of New York, American English it is, in all its richness and accented diversity.

And it has been an immensely unifying factor in melding together as a nation people from widely differing backgrounds and countries.

That is why the debate quietly going on over the desirability of English as the official language of government is so important.

In past years, German and Italian were the two most frequently used languages in the US after English. Today the Hispanic population has grown to some 20 million and will in time overtake blacks as the largest minority group. Spanish is a second language for many, the sole language for some. The 1980 census indicated that 23 million Americans do not speak English at home; by the year 2,000, the total number of non-English-speaking Americans will be just under 40 million. Nobody questions their right to maintain the language and culture of their ancestry, or the desirability of doing so. What language people speak at their own dinner tables is no business of government.

A very valid question, however, is whether government should require English to be the sole language in the courts or on voting ballots, or whether federal funds should be used to promote bilingualism in schools.

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Should a naturalized American be able to progress through all stages of American society without ever learning English? Does that accentuate ethnic differences and erode a sense of national unity? Or is the demand that all naturalized Americans learn to speak English in fact a form of racism, directed particularly at Hispanics?

Such questions will come to the fore in debate in Congress on legislation to make English the official language of the United States. Similar legislation is pending in a number of states.

A key lobbying group behind the legislation is ``U.S. English,'' and one of the original movers was former US Sen. S. I. Hayakawa of California.

Some supporters of this legislation seem ultra-zealots. But we have seen problems enough deriving from linguistic tensions between French- and English-speaking Canadians, and Flemish- and French-speaking Belgians, among others, to make us ponder carefully before officially enshrining bilingualism in America.

English is the common tongue of the majority of Americans. It might have been Dutch, or Italian, or some other European language. But it is English, and it is important that, whatever other languages they nurture, Americans command the primary language that binds them together.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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