America tries to speak English

The US exports its culture all over the world, so why is it worried about a few Spanish speakers? John Carlin reports
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The Independent Online
THE United States may stand unchallenged at the end of the century as the world's most powerful nation but, in the eyes of the republic's more visionary leaders, there is no room for complacency. A dangerous enemy lurks within.

On 1 August Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, stood up in Congress and declared: "This is a level of confusion which, if it was allowed to develop for another 20 or 30 years, would literally lead, I think, to the decay of the core parts of our civilisation."

Mr Gingrich was not talking about terrorism, Aids or the decline of family values. He was talking about the threat to the English language, about the perils of what he called "Balkanisation" in a country whose citizens between them speak 329 languages. The anatomy of this Babel, as the Census Bureau figures show, is that 198 million Americans speak English at home, 17 million speak Spanish, 15 million speak the rest.

With the Census Bureau estimating that by the year 2010 there will be more Hispanics than blacks in America, and that by the year 2050 the Hispanic population will be 81 million, Spanish is clearly the enemy to beat.

"Part of becoming American involves English," Mr Gingrich thundered before the assembled Representatives. "It is vital historically to assert and establish that English is the common language at the heart of our civilisation." The Speaker's rhetoric won the day, and 258 other members of Congress voted with him to pass, by a comfortable margin, the English Language Empowerment Act of 1996. If the bill passes the Senate, where a vote is expected this week, it will be up to President Clinton to decide whether to veto or sign a law declaring English to be the official language of the United States of America.

Mr Clinton has yet to pronounce on the matter though he did observe last year, when pressed, that "of course" English was the language of the US. If it was made the "official" language it would mean, according to the proposed law, that all federal government business would be conducted solely in English, that all public documents, legislation, even ballot papers would be written in English. (The English Language Empowerment Act does, however, grant exemptions for "foreign language instruction" and "terms of art" or "phrases from other languages currently in use", such as the national motto, E Pluribus Unum - or, appropriately enough, building one out of many.)

Bob Dole, Mr Clinton's Republican rival in this year's presidential election, has declared himself unequivocally in favour of English as America's official language. But principle, as Mr Dole has found, can sometimes be tempered by political reality. His campaign team has been making television commercials in Spanish for states with large Hispanic voting populations.

The 23 US states where legislation declaring English the official language is already in place have also discovered that the ideal sometimes clashes with the possible. The law, it turns out, has often been honoured more in the breach than the observance. In California, for example, driving licence tests may be taken in any one of 33 languages. California's Attorney General has frankly admitted that, given the flood of immigrants from south of the Mexican border, the English-only law has proved impossible to implement.

Does this mean that Mr Gingrich is right to identify the Spanish Peril as a major threat to American civilisation in the 21st century?

In fact, the evidence suggests that fears the English language will be swamped in the United States, when it is rampant the world over, have been grossly exaggerated. From Miami to Chicago to Los Angeles, first- generation immigrant parents struggle far harder to persuade their children to speak Spanish - or Urdu, or Mandarin - than to speak English.

"Ninety per cent of the children of new immigrants speak English fluently," said Patricia Mendoza of Chicago's Mexican-American Legal Defence and Educational fund. "By the next generation at least 50 per cent have lost the ability to speak their parents' mother tongue. The biggest problem is preserving the language of the first generation. When kids start school and start watching television the battle's virtually over."

David Gutierrez, a professor of history at the University of California in San Diego, said polls in California showed that the vast majority of immigrant parents actively encouraged their children to be proficient in English. "This `official English' law is really more symbolism than substance. The law's opponents argue not only that it is unnecessary, but that it's a mean-spirited attempt to militate against and discipline minorities."

That is the view of Ms Mendoza, who believes that underlying the proposed law is a raw, inchoate anti-immigrant - and particularly anti-Hispanic - sentiment. And it is certainly the view of Luis Gutierrez, a Democratic congressman from Illinois, who said in debate with Mr Gingrich's Republicans last month that the proposal they had in mind was comparable to the old laws prohibiting black Americans from voting.

Most incendiary of all has been the response of a curious assortment of separatists in the American south-west, who dream of the day that California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas are restored to Hispanic political control, rendering null and void the territorial concessions Mexico made after defeat by the US army in 1848. Voz Fronteriza, a student publication at the University of California, outdoes Louis Farrakhan at his most intemperate in denouncing "the racist-fascist European settlers" illegally "occupying Mexicano indigenous lands".

Professor Gutierrez, who teaches the sort of people who publish Voz Fronteriza, said that these young romantics posed no more threat to the political integrity of the United States than Spanish did to English. He did note, however, that the cultural presence the Hispanic population had asserted in the South West amounted to a sort of grass-roots reconquista, or reconquest.

As for the survival of American civilisation, short of banning tequila and the tortilla chip Mr Gingrich may come to learn that legislation cannot do much to control the evolution of human history, where the only thing we know for sure is that what will be, will be. Or, as they say, "Que ser, ser."