I say, it's that language bill again STATE HOUSE REPORT

March 16, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Maryland has an official state bird, a dog, crustacean, sport, even an official state fossil shell. But no official state language.

This is no fault of state Del. Peter G. Callas who for 11 years, ever since he was first elected to the General Assembly, has worked to see Maryland join a clutch of other states in making English its official language.

In 10 previous years the Democrat from Hagerstown has sponsored or co-sponsored a bill to do this. Every year, the bill has been killed in committee; in a good year it got seven of the 12 votes it needed for recommendation.

Undaunted, Mr. Callas is back with the proposal again this year, this time offering a bill with a less nationalistic edge. But the bottom line remains: If the bill passes, English would become Maryland's official language.

The bill would not preclude bilingual education or foreign language publication of information dealing with public health, safety or court proceedings. In fact, the three-page measure makes a point of extolling the virtue of cultural diversity, saying "the government should always take steps to promote the dignity of all the heritages that form this nation's pluralistic society."

Despite this friendly language, the hearing tomorrow before the House Ways and Means Committee is apt to resonate with charges of jingoism and worse.

Opponents -- who tend to refer to it as an "English-only" bill -- see it as part of a national campaign directed against immigrants, an attempt to pile sandbags against the erosion of American identity.

"They're sending a bad message to the people who speak another language," says Jose Ruiz, executive director of the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs. "My question is, why have the legislation? What's the need for this?"

Mr. Callas, the son of Greek immigrants, denies any sinister motive. When asked why it is necessary to codify the de facto dominance of English in Maryland's public life, he says "there could become a time in the future, because of the influx of immigrants coming from abroad, they could conceivably demand that a language other than English be recognized as an official language."

Mr. Callas says the bill will encourage non-English speakers to learn English. He counters Mr. Ruiz's protest by citing public statements made by Patricia Tasher, the Baltimore lawyer who directed Maryland's first Hispanic-Latin American Congress at Essex Community College last month. Ms. Tasher, a native of Peru, called for more English instruction and urged Hispanic people to recognize that learning English is their route to political and economic success.

Although he claims her as an ally, Mr. Callas will not find Ms. lTC Tasher on his side of the argument at tomorrow's hearing. She says she believes "very strongly" in more English instruction, but she plans to testify against the English-language bill.

"That bill has messages in between the lines that people whose language is not English are very concerned about," says Ms. Tasher. The message, she says, is intolerance: "If you want to come here you better talk like us and act like us."

The Maryland measure has been supported the last four years by U.S. English, a national, nonprofit organization co-founded in 1983 by the late U.S. senator, S. I. Hayakawa, a conservative California Republican, and Dr. John Tanton, a Michigan ophthalmologist.

Since then, 15 states -- most of them in the South and the West -- have adopted official language laws; five by ballot, 10 by legislation. Two others had adopted such laws before U.S. English was formed.

Vanessa Dixon, a spokesman and lobbyist for U.S. English, spent a few hours in Annapolis last week talking with legislators and appearing on a radio talk show. In an interview, she decried the fact that debate over the issue has gotten mired in the past in charges of racism.

Ms. Dixon, who describes herself as a "liberal Democrat," says the organization has been working to soften its conservative image by stressing the importance of teaching English and by emphasizing its support for cultural diversity. It has been soft-pedaling the "official language" facet of the issue, she says, revising the Maryland bill this year to refer to the "Common Official Language of Maryland" and adding passages on cultural plurality.

"If they can manufacture a charge of discrimination out of this bill, it will be magical," says Ms. Dixon.

The new language is nothing but window dressing, says James Crawford, a Washington-based journalist who published a book last year called "Hold Your Tongue: Bilingualism and the Politics of 'English Only.' " Mr. Crawford says U.S. English has been trying to reform its image ever since co-founder Dr. Tanton resigned in 1988 after the public disclosure of his memo warning of the social and political threat posed by the influx of Hispanic immigrants.

"What is really at issue is a symbolic statement: Whose language is in charge here," says Mr. Crawford. "This has had a divisive effect in the states where it's come up."

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