IN recent months, a number of states have passed constitutional amendments declaring English to be their official language. A group called ``US English'' also has received wide publicity for its efforts to enact an amendment making English the official language in the US. But the creation of an official English amendment is the sort of meddling from which the US Constitution should be protected. The first generation of immigrants to the US spoke English poorly and was more comfortable with the language of their native land. This posed problems for the cities in which these immigrants settled: for the police who enforced the laws and the courts that protected their rights; for teachers who instructed students whose English was not adequate for their grade level; for social workers who attempted to help those disadvantaged by poverty and ignorance of English.
In recent years these problems have been addressed with somewhat greater sensitivity to immigrant culture and language than was usual before World War I.
Some Americans, however, are outraged by the accommodations made to immigrant populations: transitional teaching in foreign languages; rewarding police and social workers for learning the principal languages of the communities; printing parking tickets in Spanish and English. They think special arrangements are unfair to the native-born and encourage immigrants to cling to their mother tongues. They are entitled to their opinion. But a constitutional amendment to enforce their preference for English may produce surprising and upsetting side effects.
``English shall be the official language of the United States'' is not a legal principle but a cultural wish. Unlike anything else in the Constitution, it imposes no duties, restrains no activities, and confers no powers on Congress.
On the day after the amendment is passed, state and local governments will still face the same problems. But the decisions on every detail of policy will be taken out of their hands and confided to federal judges appointed for life. The statement ``English shall be the official language'' provides no intelligible basis for decision. Therefore the judges may do just as they please. At best, they may decide that the amendment merely expresses a pious wish. (If so, it doesn't belong in the Constitution.) At worst, they will be making decisions that are none of their business - for example, that the Constitution forbids the hiring of social workers who speak the language of their clients, lest they be deprived of their incentive to learn English.
Many conservatives support the official-English amendment. Yet the same people fulminate endlessly against the expanded power and pretensions of the federal courts. If they were ruled by principle instead of prejudices, we might expect them to oppose US English as undemocratic. But they support the amendment precisely because they are afraid of democracy. They are afraid of local Hispanic majorities and the recognition they may demand for their language and culture through the electoral process.
But the larger constitutional issue must be faced. The US is a republic in which national identity is defined by democratic and universal principles, and not by ethnic or linguistic identity. A naturalized citizen is a person who has voluntarily joined our community by subscribing to those principles, whatever his color, culture, or language. People around the world flock here, not only for economic opportunity, but for a chance to leave behind the stifling exclusiveness of their communities and ethnic groups and the internecine hatreds of their homelands. They are happy to exchange ethnic loyalties for loyalty to a political community that welcomes them. And they are happy to learn English, the language of that community and the key to success.
What would happen if we rejected our universalist principles and announced that our political culture belongs only to English-speakers? Proponents of the amendment apparently believe the amendment will cause foreigners to redouble their efforts to learn English. This is one possible reaction. More likely, though, is increased cultural and linguistic separatism. In fact, once we admit the principle of an official language, American Hispanics as they increase in numbers may eventually demand a new amendment establishing official bilingualism in recognition of the demographic facts. Then we will have brought down upon our heads the troubles of Canada and Belgium, and we will deserve them.
We can best avoid this fate by following the first rule of constitutional jurisprudence: ``If it ain't broke, don't fix it.''