Immigrants always preferred own languageThere is much...


December 21, 1996

Immigrants always preferred own language

There is much argument, pro and con, concerning bilingualism and the adoption of English as the official language of the United States.

Americans are very much aware, and some quite annoyed, by the pervasiveness of foreign languages in the media today, with foreign-language programs on radio and television and foreign-language print material available in most big cities.

One of the most frequently heard comments is, ''My grandparents came from Europe and they had to learn English.'' That isn't quite the whole story. Immigrants to the United States today must learn to speak English in order to be granted citizenship. The rule is no different than it was a century ago. Contrary to popular impression, many adult immigrants of 50 to 100 years ago never learned English fluently -- and didn't need to.

The "my grandparents" crowd likes to point out that the federal and local governments today spend, literally, millions of taxpayer dollars to provide foreign language translations of documents and signage relating to everything from labor laws to Medicare to income taxes.

I am a grandson of non-English-speaking immigrants who came to the United States at the end of the 19th century. As a senior citizen now, I was a contemporary of many non-English-speaking immigrants in the late 1920s and and early '30s.

I want to point out that back then in most big cities in the eastern United States, including Baltimore, there were newspapers printed in German, Polish, Yiddish or other languages. One could walk for blocks through neighborhoods where English was not heard on the streets and the signs on shops were in the language of the ethnic group that was living there.

Most Lutheran churches, like Old Otterbein in Baltimore, had services in German. Of course, the Roman Catholic mass was in Latin and equally incomprehensible to all parishioners.

There was no TV and little radio, but the classic entertainment was opera -- in Italian. Enrico Caruso could be heard singing in Italian on phonograph records everywhere.

Until the mid-1920s, movies were silent and audiences speaking a dozen different languages could sit side by side and understand what was going on.

Immigrants today are just as eager and willing to learn to speak English as the immigrants of a century ago. The problem lies in the flood of regulations and paperwork generated by our society. At the turn of the century, there was virtually no paperwork required of residents of the United States. In most states there was no such thing as a driver's license. Social Security did not exist until Roosevelt's New Deal.

There were no applications for unemployment, no food stamps, no significant labor laws that workers were required to understand. Until 1913 there was no federal income tax, hence no income-tax forms. Many immigrants were paid in cash, and had no bank accounts.

About the only official documents people had were birth certificates and death certificates, and they were not personally involved in their creation in either case.

No Social Security numbers, no telephone numbers, no credit card numbers. For the first 150 years of our history, long before the advent of our supposed ''paperless society,'' the United States was, in large part, paperless as far as the average citizen was concerned.

Today we must deal with a myriad of forms and laws so complex, and some so poorly devised, that even a native English speaker has trouble understanding them. Don't blame the immigrants.

Herbert S. Wilcox


The writer is a member of the Catonsville Community College adjunct faculty, an adviser to the International Students Club and a volunteer tutor for adults learning English as a second language.

Traffic stop case violates our freedom

I'm writing this in reference to the ''traffic stop'' case that the U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing.

If police officers are allowed to make passengers exit a vehicle that is stopped for a minor traffic violation, many people are going to find themselves unnecessarily detained and humiliated.

Something as trivial as a burned out license plate lamp could permit a police officer to order the occupants out of the car. Hostile reactions by those who have illnesses, tight schedules, or just a bad day are likely to cause bad police-community relations.

Who is kidding whom? This only gives law enforcement officers an opportunity to closer examine occupants of a vehicle to look for probable cause for search of the vehicle and occupants.

This probably will not save the lives of any police officers. I would think it difficult to attack a police officer from inside a car unless he is shot or hit by a thrown object. If this is the case it will happen before he convinces anyone to exit the vehicle.

This won't happen systematically of course, but one time will be once too many. Anyone who watches TV or reads the paper knows that poor judgment by police officers is common.

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