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Speak English

Washington mucks up language

Guest author

“Yuh as a rezedent ave di rights ahn di rispansabilities to elp mek yuh HUD-asisted owzing ah behta owme fi yuh ahn yuh fambily.”

So reads the text of a pamphlet actually published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and distributed to Haitian-Americans residing in federally subsidized housing.

It is supposed to be a Haitian Creole translation. But it’s really a poorly rendered imitation of Jamaican patois (which was no doubt written by a non-Jamaican).

HUD was embarrassed by its translational blunder. But HUD officials, including “Sekretary Andrew M. Cuomo fella,” maintain that the nation’s growing diversity dictates that government agencies make certain forms and applications and pamphlets available in multiple languages.

(Indeed, several years back, HUD actually threatened to withhold millions of dollars in federal housing funds from cities that refused to print documents in languages other than English.)

But all the government does by conducting official business in multiple languages is promote the balkanization of the American population into English-speakers and so-called “language minorities.” In so doing, it undermines our national credo “e pluribus unum,” out of many, one.

That is not to say that Americans should speak but one language. Indeed, Americans who speak two or more languages are, arguably, a national asset.

But English is our national if not “official” language. And it is hardly unreasonable (or “nativist” or “xenophobic” or “racist”) to expect the 12 million or so foreign-born non-English-speaking residents of this country to make a faithful effort to become proficient in the language of their adapted home.

Unfortunately, the government makes it easy for non-English speakers to get by without learning, as Teddy Roosevelt reminded, “the language of the Declaration of Independence, of Washington’s Farewell address, of Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech and second inaugural.”

Indeed, “language minorities” can go to school in many parts of the country and get most of their instruction in their foreign tongue. They can get a job without knowing English. And they cannot be required to speak English in the workplace (in fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed 146 complaints last year against companies with English-only policies).

They can get driver’s licenses without knowing English (California offers driver’s license exams in 30 different languages). They can get government welfare benefits without speaking English (like the federal housing subsidy). They can obtain citizenship without learning English (the INS has actually conducted a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens almost entirely in Spanish). And they can vote without knowing English (Los Angeles has printed ballots in six different languages for a local election).

The perverse aspect of this government bow to multilingualism is that it actually hurts the non-English-speaking population. Indeed, a Labor Department report, published earlier this decade, showed that immigrants learn English more quickly when there is less native-language support around them.

And immigrants who learn English fare considerably better economically than those who don’t. In fact, an authoritative study by Richard Vedder and Lowell Galloway of Ohio State University found that, “Other things being equal, good knowledge of English increases the income of households by almost a third over what it would have been without that skill.”

Given these findings, it seems logical that the government would wage an English proficiency campaign among the non-English-speaking population. But, in fact, the government is going in the opposite direction. It is publishing pamphlets in Creole and other languages.

And that is why the ranks of the immigrant poor are increasing. Indeed, a recent report by the Center for Immigration Studies revealed that the poverty rate among the nation’s immigrants has markedly increased over the past two decades.

In 1979, only one in 10 of the nation’s poor were immigrants, according to the Washington-based think tank. In 1997, one of every five poor persons in this country were immigrants. Meanwhile, the poverty rate among native-born Americans has remained flat over the same span.

So the government does so-called language minorities no favor by facilitating their continued use of their native tongues. All that does is consign these non-English-speakers to America’s economic underclass. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)