Language as a political weapon

April 03, 1995

An old stalking horse for nativism is making its way through the General Assembly once again. The House of Delegates has narrowly passed a bill that would make English the official language of Maryland.

What's the point, you might ask. Almost everyone in the state speaks English almost all of the time. And it is the unchallenged language of government discourse. If Annapolis sometimes resembles the Tower of Babel, it's not because of confusion over the mother tongue.

The issue here is not linguistic purity, it's xenophobia. English-as-official-language bills took root in Florida and the Southwest, where an infusion of multi-culturalism brought by Spanish-speaking immigrants has caused concern among people whose own devotion to English goes back only a few generations.

By requiring that government functions be conducted in English, proponents profess to bolster the unifying qualities of language. What they are really doing is creating second-class status for newcomers to this country who need time to adjust to English.

Whatever relevance this debate might have in Dade County, xTC Florida, or in Southern California -- and we doubt it has any -- it has none at all in Maryland. There are pockets of Hispanic and Asian immigrants in both the Baltimore and Washington suburbs, where schools and public agencies give a little extra linguistic help at considerable expense to new arrivals. Proclaiming English the state's official language would undermine these programs. In all likelihood the bill would prolong the adjustment period for immigrants, rather than hasten their entry into the mainstream.

So why the push to enact an "official language" bill in Maryland? In part it arises from the bigots who are always eager for an opportunity to put "them" in their place. Nationally, it's valuable for supporters of the measure to line up state-by-state support even where it is irrelevant to their professed objective.

For years the legislature had the wisdom to bury bills like this one. Last year, however, the General Assembly enacted a similar measure. Gov. William Donald Schaefer vetoed it. Gov. Parris Glendening, whose home county, Prince Georges, has embraced immigrant residents, calls the bill "punitive." We trust that means he would veto the bill, too, if the Senate is misguided enough to follow the House's lead.

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