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Uniting the US with English

I CALLED an organization in Washington the other day to check on the progress of the movement to establish English as the official language of the United States. ``How many states,'' I asked, ``have English-only statutes now?''

The young woman to whom I talked was quick to rebuke me. ``That's not a term we like to use,'' she said. ``We're not campaigning to make English the only language. We welcome people using among themselves the language of the country from which they may have come. Our position is simply that English ought to be the only language of official use.''

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Her point was fair and I apologized for my sloppy use of the English language.

But whether we use it sloppily, whether our grammar is poor, or whether we speak it with extraordinary accents, the English language is a mighty unifying force in the US, and we ought to be glad that the movement to require its establishment as the sole official language is gaining momentum.

Four states this year have made English their official tongue - Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Carolina. That brings to 13 the number of states that have so voted. California was the first.

Legislation is pending in 16 more states, and there are five different bills before Congress to make English the official nationwide language.

Critics claim that the drive to make English the US's sole official language is a bigoted one; that it discriminates against Asians and Spanish-speaking Americans. I find this criticism hard to understand. Nobody, surely, is suggesting that Chinese Americans should give up the use of Chinese, that Cuban refugees should stop speaking Spanish, that the boat people from Southeast Asia should stop speaking Vietnamese.

Nor is any sensitive person striving to obliterate the rich cultural heritage from non-American countries that so enriches American society.

But what is so onerous about urging that immigrants to the US should learn the basic English language of their new land, be able to read a ballot in English, and participate in court cases whose language of business is English?

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If these simple requirements are not observed, the danger is that the US will become an officially bilingual country. If immigrants and their children have no encouragement to speak English, whole mini-societies will emerge conducting their business completely in a non-English tongue.

We have seen the difficulties that bilingualism creates in a country like Canada. Some experts say that bilingualism costs Canada $500,000,000 a year.

Even sophisticated countries like Belgium wrestle with awesome problems over bilingualism, and in some less sophisticated countries in the third world bilingualism has produced violent disunity.

The US is made up of emigrants from many lands, and German or Italian might well have become the principal language if the numbers had been different. If that had been the case, then that particular language should have been the sole official one. But the fact is that English became the common tongue and it should remain so.

It is a unifying factor and it should be cherished and enshrined, even as the use of other tongues is encouraged in appropriate, but nonofficial settings.

(John Hughes will resume his column Wednesday, June 3.)

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