Does Pennsylvania Need An Official Language?
State and federal bills are under debate that would make English the official language, but the legislation could have deeper consequences.
There’s a lot of talk in Pennsylvania about immigration. Right now the immediate focus is on two House bills that would make English the official language for all acts of state government. There’s also federal legislation - The English Language Unity Act of 2011 - that would require all official US government functions to be in English.
According to a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article, proponents say these laws promote cultural unity and encourage immigrants to learn English. Opponents say the primacy of English is self-evident and enshrining it in law is unnecessary. Their position is that immigrants already are highly motivated to learn the language. I’d like to add my two cents to this debate.
First, even though supporters of English-only policies argue that too many people do not speak English, the fact is almost every American speaks English. According to the 2000 US census, 92 percent of Americans have “no difficulty speaking English.” the vast majority of Americans – 82 percent - speak ONLY English at home.
Proponents of English only argue that today’s immigrants don’t want to assimilate like previous immigrants. The fact is that today’s immigrants learn English as quickly as previous groups. For example, a report on language assimilation by the Lewis Mumford Center at Albany found that the second generation is largely bilingual; 92 percent of Latinos speak English “well” as do 96 percent of the Asians, though most also speak another language at home.
I don’t want to get into an argument on whether or not today’s immigrants want to learn the language. I’ve been working in the field of immigration as first a paralegal and later as an immigration attorney for 25 years and I’ve seen clients who learn English quickly and others who struggle with it, but very few make no attempt to learn the language. Let’s be honest. It’s to their benefit to be able to effectively communicate in English.
I’m just not convinced that we need these English only laws. After all, studies by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of US Government documents are already printed in English only. Only about 200 - or less than 1 percent - of US Government documents are published in a language other than English.
I have more important concerns. For instance, English as the official language is particularly harmful in certain areas such as health care. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine (“Language Barriers to Health Care in the United States”) notes that few hospitals are providing interpretation services for patients. As a result, practitioners sometimes misunderstand patients’ symptoms and patients can misunderstand doctors’ instructions. English as the official language could preclude federally funded hospitals and health clinics from effectively serving patients with limited English language skills.
Don’t think this is your problem? Consider the fact that English as the official language would weaken law enforcement and criminal justice proceedings. For example, if a victim of a violent crime who doesn’t speak English reports the crime to the police, he or she will receive a notice from the court or the prosecution regarding when to come to trial. If that notice is only in English the victim will not know when to come to court and the case could be dismissed, leaving the community at large at risk.
Federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are critical in the case of a natural disaster, an Avian Flu pandemic or an act of terrorism. If people with limited English language skills do not understand instructions or written information from FEMA or CDC, all Americans will be negatively impacted.
I believe an immigrant who learns English will be more successful in this country than those who don’t learn the language. I encourage all my clients to learn the language and to work towards becoming naturalized citizens. A person admitted as a lawful permanent resident can apply for US citizenship after five years. If they’re married to a citizen or in the US military they can apply after three years. It’s to their benefit to learn our language.
But is it really necessary to waste valuable time creating laws that eliminate a non-native speaker from understanding vital information? I think that instead of focusing on English only laws we should be striving to become more multi-lingual in this country. We need people who can speak English, of course, but we also need people who speak foreign languages so we as a nation can remain competitive in this world economy.
The ability to speak more than one language is an asset, not a liability. I think we should be encouraging citizens of the United States to learn and maintain Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Vietnamese, Farsi, African languages, sign languages and the many other languages of the world.
I do not want my tax dollars being spent on the creation of unnecessary laws. I encourage our lawmakers to get off their xenophobic soap boxes and focus on the more important issues at hand.