Coming to grips with culture clash English-only issue: Does Arizona need an official language?

December 27, 1996

EARLIER THIS MONTH, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that heralds the clash of language and culture that already marks political life in parts of the United States. In 1988, voters in Arizona approved an amendment to the state's constitution requiring all the state's business be conducted in English and that state employees use only English on the job.

A state worker sued, claiming the provision violated her free speech rights. Questions from the justices indicate that they are more likely to decide this case on narrow procedural grounds than on the broader issues it entails. But that will not settle the questions revolving around language and culture in this country.

For a nation of immigrants, the notion of putting up barriers to newcomers raises uncomfortable questions. But most Americans would agree that assimilation is in the best interests of immigrants and of the country as a whole. The problems that arise for nations when significant sections of the population insist on preserving a separate culture are all too evident in Canada, where a separatist movement in Quebec continues to bedevil the country.

The pressures behind the English-only movement in Arizona and other parts of the Southwest are understandable. The dramatic increase of Spanish-speaking immigrants, mostly from Mexico, is unusual in American immigrant history. In previous waves of immigration, newcomers were spread over a much broader area of the country. Even groups that wanted to preserve their native languages were soon overwhelmed and Americanized.

But for many immigrants in Arizona, California and some other states, the proximity of their mother country makes prospects for assimilation less certain than for groups whose heritage lies an ocean away. Unless we insist on assimilation, are we not allowing the potential for a Quebec-like problem of our own?

That is not a frivolous question. But neither are issues of free speech, as well as of the efficient and effective delivery of government services. Sooner or later, the court will probably have to face these substantive issues. In the meantime, for the proponents of English-only laws there is an equally pressing question: If the goal is to ensure that new immigrants follow the traditional pattern of assimilating into American culture, while also enriching it, wouldn't it be far more effective to employ the carrot of encouragement and persuasion than the stick of a punitive ultimatum?

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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