Do we need an 'official' language?

March 25, 1994

Should English be the "official" language of Maryland? That's the question being considered by the General Assembly this session in what has become an annual ritual in Annapolis. Efforts by U.S. English, the lobbying group pushing the measure, to make English the "official" language of state and local PTC government in Maryland have gotten nowhere in the past. But this year a bill to put the question to voters on a referendum in November made it out of committee onto the House of Delegates floor. So lawmakers now may actually have to consider what previously was unthinkable.

Opponents of the law fall into two categories: those who think such measures are in principle xenophobic and parochial and those who simply believe such a law in Maryland is unnecessary. The bill under consideration in Annapolis this week is a good bit of both.

The movement to make English an "official" language in the U.S. got its start in places like California, Florida and a few Southwestern states where large influxes of Spanish-speaking immigrants seemed to threaten the position English enjoyed as the primary language of government and commerce. The

English-as-official-language movement also got tangled up in the rancorous debate over bilingual education in those states.

But although Maryland is exceedingly diverse -- there are over 100 separate language communities in the state -- nowhere is the use of English in jeopardy here. The bill's backers would like to add Maryland to the list of states that have adopted English-as-official-language laws not because it is needed but because a victory here -- where the bill's language provisions essentially would be meaningless -- might bolster their case for national legislation mandating English.

Maryland courts and public health facilities already provide translating services to people who need them. And there seems little likelihood of speakers on the General Assembly floor delivering their remarks in Thai, Urdu or Ukrainian -- if for no other reason than that their colleagues wouldn't have a clue what they were saying.

Yet these are the kinds of "dangers" the English-as-official-language bill is designed to address. Since there is virtually no chance such dangers will materialize, the bill is mostly hot air. It's also a bow toward linguistic xenophobia elsewhere. Maryland has too many problems of its own to waste time and resources becoming embroiled in other states' paranoid fantasies. This state's reputation for tolerance was hard-earned; why squander it on a measure that serves no useful purpose?

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