Official English Bill May Need A Rest

COMMENT

March 28, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Poor Stokes Kolodzjieski. Even fellow Poles are mad over his crusade to make English the official language of Maryland.

Go ahead and laugh. Many people do, every year, as soon as the Carvel Beach delegate sponsors or signs on to legislation designating English as the "common official language" of the Free State.

And after the laughter passes, everyone always asks the same question: "Excusez-moi and pardoneme, but what do we need that for?" At last check, Maryland was not in any danger of being taken over by a non-English-speaking people.

Stokes has heard this before, and he is prepared. "There's a lot of things we don't need. We don't always need insurance, but we buy it."

That's really the way Stokes thinks of this screwy little bill -- as insurance that his great state will never be mired in a quagmire of different languages so nobody knows what anybody's saying. Besides, he says, Maryland may be closer to becoming a modern-day Tower of Babel than we think.

You doubt it? Look at North County. The number of Koreans is growing all the time. "They even have their own separate satellite at the Pascal Center," he points out.

Stokes means no harm. He never meant his bill to discriminate, and he's all for people holding on to their ethnicity. Why, he still uses his old Polish Bible.

This year, he and his co-sponsors, including lead sponsor Peter G. Callas of Hagerstown and Millersville Republican John Gary, have been careful to divest themselves of charges of prejudice by including language praising cultural diversity.

All the same, you can guess what non-English-speaking people think of the bill. Offensive, exclusionary, jingoistic -- all those terms apply. "I even have some Polish people who are mad at me," says Stokes, who says he grew up on Polish but abandoned it because "I'm American and I want to speak English."

Even those who believe immigrants should learn English are opposed. They sense a disturbing message "that if you want to come here, you better talk like us and act like us," said Patricia Tasher, a Baltimore lawyer who recently directed Maryland's first Hispanic-Latin American Congress in Baltimore County.

And always, we come back to the question, "What do we need that for?"

Stokes' main reason -- that non-English speaking soldiers could pose a threat in case of war -- doesn't hold much water considering that a good number of people with less-than-perfect English have already served this country in combat.

He does, however, mention a better reason, namely, that it's in the best interest of immigrants themselves to learn English. Common sense dictates that if you move to Tibet, it behooves you to learn Tibetian. You'll qualify for more jobs and be able to play a bigger role in community affairs.

The trouble is, the bill now before the General Assembly doesn't do a thing to help immigrants learn English. It stipulates English as "the language of public record of the state of Maryland," and that's it.

What does it mean, to be the "language of public record"? The national non-profit group U.S. English, which wants to make English the official national language and supports the Maryland measure, makes it all sound very noble.

"A common official language . . . elevates the goal of promoting English proficiency to official policy," it writes. "It reaffirms our belief that a common official language promotes unity and serves as a bridge for understanding in this diverse society."

All that, of course, is understood already.

In practical terms, all House Bill 991 does is require the state to conduct most of its official business, the writing of laws, policies, etc., in English, exactly as it does now. Judicial matters and matters of public safety and health -- those public matters that touch most directly on people's lives -- could continue to be written in another language, if necessary.

For all their apparent uselessness, English language laws are in place in 15 states, most in the South and West. Florida's Dade County, which includes Miami and where more than half of the residents speak Spanish, has its own English-language ordinance.

If such laws can "promote unity," encourage immigrants to learn English and make government more efficient, you'd expect to see the results there.

Instead, Paula Musto, Dade County's director of communications, says the law has been nothing but "a huge handicap. It makes life very, very difficult."

This month, before Dade County elections, county officials printed brochures in English explaining changes in election procedure. They thought the brochures did not fall under the federal Voting Rights Act, which protects the right to vote regardless of race, and were subject to the local language law.

The feds disagreed. A few days before the election, the courts ruled that the county's decision would cause "irreparable injury" to the Hispanic community and ordered it to provide the information in Spanish. It was too late to reprint the brochures, so the county had to use paid advertisements.

So there you have it. English language laws are pointless in areas without a minority population, and a pain in the neck in places that do.

Poor Stokes, he means well. But after six years, perhaps it's time for him to expend his good intentions on some worthier cause.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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