South Carolina: 20-year-old edict makes English official tongue

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Sep 11 14:59:46 UTC 2006

Language law sends clear signal
20-year-old edict makes English official tongue

BY TIM DONNELLY, The Island Packet
Published Saturday, September 9, 2006

Stuck in what is likely a very uncomfortable position between the official
state spider (the Carolina wolf spider) and the fumes of the official
state tobacco museum (that's the South Carolina Tobacco Museum in Mullins)
sits the English language. Or, at least, a 20-year-old provision that
makes English the official language of South Carolina, a supreme title the
language has yet to earn on the national level. It's a symbolic
designation, with no legal requirements or penalties attached to it to
punish non-English speakers, no more than a resident can be fined for
improperly performing a square dance (the official American folk dance) or
for trampling a lettered olive (South Carolina's official shell).

But what it does represent -- lawmakers and a political expert say -- is a
desire to send a clear message to foreigners coming into the state: We
speak English in the Palmetto State, and you should too if you want to get
along. Though English became the state's official language in 1987, the
issue echoes in a debate that has emerged on Hilton Head Island in recent
weeks over a new salary incentive the town soon will offer to employees
who learn to speak Spanish. The main impetus for the $1,200 annual salary
bonus, town officials say, is to help handle the area's growing Hispanic
population, especially for emergency crews who need to be able to
communicate quickly with people in distress. But employees in other town
offices, such as building permits, could take advantage of the incentive.

The program, which won't go into effect until late fall or early winter,
agitated a hornet's nest of criticism from many residents, some who
extrapolated the idea so far as to suggest the town is catering to an
illegal-immigrant population instead of facing the problem head on.
"Learning to speak English is no more difficult for Hispanics than it is
for people who speak Polish, German, French, Italian, Arabic or any of the
many Asian languages. But you have to immerse yourself in society in order
to do so," island resident Fabia Kendall told Town Council on Tuesday,
reading from a prepared statement. "Your incentive plan treats this issue
with little or no respect for the obligations that come with legal
immigration, and completely sidesteps the issue of illegal immigration. It
is just plain wrong and an insult to all of those who came to this country
legally and properly to improve their way of life."

Kendall, who said she didn't know a word of English when her family
immigrated to the country from Italy, was grateful her family was forced
to learn the language quickly in order to survive. It only took about six
months for her to speak and understand English, she said. During that
time, her parents did not encounter -- and did not expect to encounter --
any government employees who offered to speak Italian. When Kendall
finished her comments Tuesday, the Town Hall audience burst into applause.


Though the General Assembly approved the official-language bill almost two
decades before today's immigration-reform debate, lawmakers at the time
were dealing with many of the same concerns, particularly the push for
making English the national language in order to unify the country, said
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who, as a state senator, co-sponsored the
bill. "This was also a time where there was a push by some to promote new
immigrants not to learn English, that it was considered possibly as being
some level of cultural dictate," Wilson said in a phone interview from his
office in Washington. "When in fact it's my view that, particularly for
persons fully to assimilate in America, you need to speak English. For
young people to be successful in business and life generally, you need to
speak the language of the country that you live in."

These kinds of "official" designations typically serve to boost particular
attributes of a state, such as a crop it's proud of or a unique native
animal, said Blease Graham, a political-science professor at the
University of South Carolina and specialist on South Carolina politics who
has co-authored a book on the state government. But having one recognized
language can help serve as a sort of standard currency in the marketplace,
he said. "Part of the idea of a common language goes along with the
melting-pot idea," Graham said. "While the home language is a part of the
home culture, there needs to be more of a common language for economic

The push for a designation of English as the national language still is
alive. Wilson is co-sponsoring two bills that would declare English the
official language of the government and create a uniform-language rule for
naturalization. The spirit of those bills is the same as the South
Carolina law, Wilson said. "It's unifying but it's also promoting the
assimilation of immigrants," he said. "It's particularly helpful to young
people to achieve to their highest ability to learn English. If you
segregate yourself into a language that is not of the country, then you
will have higher unemployment."


The difference with Hilton Head's program, town officials contend, is
pragmatism. If the town stuck to an English-only policy on principle, it
could end up in situations where finding an interpreter would be too
time-consuming, such as code-enforcement officers needing to tell someone
they were cutting down a tree improperly, officials said. More important,
emergency crews don't refuse treatment to people even if they don't speak
the same language, and state law requires the municipal court to provide

"I don't think you can stick your head in the sand (and say), 'We're not
going to give you service if you're here dying of a heart attack and you
can't explain to us what your symptoms are,'<2009>" Mayor Tom Peeples
said. The town's program will be modeled on a similar one the Beaufort
County Sheriff's Office has used for the past five years to encourage more
employees to learn Spanish. The office tries to recruit more
Spanish-speakers at college job fairs, said Capt. Toby McSwain, head of
theiff's southern enforcement division. But more bilingual employees are
always needed. "We're not where we need to be at," McSwain said last

Graham, the political-science professor, said municipal governments often
are forced into short-term solutions when dealing with a growing
population that speaks a different language, particularly in law
enforcement situations. A similar effort to encourage law enforcement
officers to learn other languages is getting under way in Columbia, he
said. Peeples said he agrees with many of the critics in believing that --
outside of emergency workers -- tax dollars should not be used to cater to
non-English-speaking residents. But the incentive program is a
town-employee issue, and Peeples said Town Council is not in the business
of micromanaging the operations of Town Hall. "If it was up to me, I
wouldn't do that," he said. "English needs to stay the language of this

The town's salary-bonus idea grew out of the council's goal this year to
increase communication with the Hispanic community. But all sides agree
that the issue of how to handle the needs of the growing Hispanic
population isn't one the town can hide inside a shell to avoid. That's
something more appropriate for the loggerhead turtle -- the official state


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