In Language Bill, the Language Counts

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun May 21 13:07:24 UTC 2006

from the NYTimes, May 21, 2006

The Basics
In Language Bill, the Language Counts

Stirring even more hot sauce into the immigration debate, the Senate last
week approved a measure designating English as the national language. The
designation was contained in an amendment to the immigration bill, and it
is uncertain whether it will survive House-Senate negotiations. But one
thing is clear: declaring English the national language is not quite the
same as declaring it the official one. "A national language is very
different from an official language policy," said April Linton, an
assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, San
Diego who specializes in the sociology of language. Designating a national
language, she said, "recognizes it as part of a national culture and not
something enforced in terms of education or government."

An official language law, on the other hand, "can have real consequences
for policies," Ms. Linton said. The Senate amendment includes a general
call for the government to "preserve and enhance the role of English," and
supporters said it would not lead to the dismantling of regulations
concerning bilingualism. But opponents say another clause, which declares
that no one has the right to demand that government services be provided
in any language other than English, could open the door to discrimination.

Fewer than half of the nations in the world have an official language and
sometimes they have more than one. "The interesting thing, though," said
James Crawford, a writer on language policy, "is that a large percentage
of them are enacted to protect the rights of language minority groups, not
to establish a dominant language." In Canada, for example, French is an
official language along with English.  Such a policy is intended to
protect the francophone population, which has remained distinct for
hundreds of years. "In the United States we don't have that kind of stable
bilingualism," Mr.  Crawford said. "We have a pattern of very rapid

A more apt comparison might be to Australia, which like the United States
has had high levels of immigration. "Australia doesn't have an
English-only movement," Mr. Crawford said.  While English is the official
language, Australia also has a policy that encourages immigrants to
preserve their language and English-speakers to learn new ones, all to
benefit trade and security. "They don't use language as a lightning rod
for expressing your views on immigration," Mr. Crawford said. "Language
has not become a major symbolic dividing line."

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