Tennessee: Nashville may make English government language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jan 22 14:03:54 UTC 2009

Nashville may make English government language
By JUANITA COUSINS – 15 hours ago

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nashville could become the largest U.S. city
to make English the mandatory language for all government business
under a measure being put before voters Thursday, but critics say it
might invite lawsuits and even cost the city millions in federal

Though similar measures have passed elsewhere, the idea has ignited an
intense debate. Proponents say using one language would unite the
city, but business leaders, academics and the city's mayor worry it
could give the city a bad reputation, because, as Gov. Phil Bredesen
put it, "it's mean spirited."

The referendum's most vocal supporter, city Councilman Eric Crafton
collected enough signatures to get the "English First" charter
amendment on the ballot because he fears government won't run smoothly
if his hometown mirrors New York City, where services are offered in
Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian and French Creole.

Crafton has tried to eliminate the city's language translation
services since 2006, but the mayor vetoed a similar measure in 2007.

"A community that speaks a common language is unified and efficient,"
said Crafton, who is fluent in Japanese and married to a native of

Exactly how much English would be silenced if the measure passes is
murky. While it requires that all government communication and
publications be printed in English, it allows an exception for public
health and safety.

If it passes, there will be uncertainty about what government services
can be translated and what can't, said health department spokesman
Brian Todd. For example, the public health exemption might allow
health workers to use translation to tell an immigrant with
tuberculosis or a sexually transmitted disease how to avoid
contaminating others, he said.

The department currently provides brochures in several languages about
health issues ranging from disease prevention to the side effects of
immunizations. It also uses translation services to help enforce dog
leash laws and codes that prohibit lots with high grass and weeds.

"Are we going to be able to go out and tell someone in English only
that they've got to cut their grass?" Todd said.

Detractors have also said the English First policy may not survive a
court challenge because Title VI of the Civil Rights Act requires
agencies that receive federal dollars to provide free translation

Todd said the health department could lose about $25 million in
federal funds if it stopped translation services. The city's finance
director, Richard Riebeling, said if it passes, he will urge
departments to continue providing translation services so Nashville
does not "risk millions of dollars in federal grants."

Thirty states, including Tennessee, and at least a dozen cities have
declared English their official language, said K.C. McAlpin, executive
director of the Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish.

ProEnglish has contributed at least $19,000 to support the referendum.
But proponents of the measure missed a campaign finance deadline, so
the total raised and spent isn't yet public. Opponents collected about

The measure would affect a significant block of Nashville residents.
About 10 percent of Nashville's nearly 600,000 people speak a language
other than English in their homes, according to census data, and the
city's Hispanic population boomed to 5 percent this decade. The city
is home to the nation's largest Kurdish community and is a
resettlement spot for refugees from Southeast Asia, the Middle East
and Africa.

Adversaries argue that the city spends little on translation services.
The only documented expenditure is for Monterey, Calif.-based Language
Line Services, which provides phone interpretations in 176 languages.
Between April 2004 and December 2008, Nashville spent $522,287 on the
service — less than 1 percent of the city's $1.5 billion annual
budget. By comparison, the referendum is costing $300,000, elections
officials said.

Immigrants and advocates say it takes a long time to learn English. If
the measure passes, there won't be much time to catch up: The council
would have 10 days to certify the vote, and the measure would take
effect after that.

Remziya Suleyman, 24, a Kurdish refugee from Zaxo, Iraq, moved to
Nashville in 1992 with her family. It took her three years to learn
English in Nashville public schools.

Her 43-year-old mother, however, still struggles.

"She doesn't know how to read and write English even after being here
for 17 years because, like many other refugees, she had to work three
jobs at one point for the family to survive," Suleyman said.

Associated Press Writer Kristin M. Hall contributed to this story.

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