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Arizona one more stop on misguided
drive for English-only laws
Commentary by Myriam Marquez
January 25, 1999
©Copyright 1999 Orlando Sentinel
Ever been to a foreign country and needed help understanding
Ever become sick in a foreign land, and you weren't sure what
the doctor was telling you to do?
I've experienced some of those travel trials and tribulations,
but in every case eventually someone was found who could speak
enough English. Or Spanish, my other language. My four years of
French instruction helped, too, but time erases much of what was
learned so long ago.
People's eagerness to help was very apparent -- from foreign
government offices to private shops, pharmacies and the rest.
In the United States, the language battles often are framed
in the rhetoric immigrant-bashing. No sense helping those people,
seems to be the refrain. If they want to live here, they must
Yes, they must. I agree. But learning is not instantaneous;
it takes years to be truly fluent.
For older immigrants learning English, accents can be heavy
Accents turn off some native-English speakers. Stereotypes are
created, assumptions made about that person's "lack of intelligence"
or motivation to learn English.
And when two people who share a language other than English
are using it and an English-only speaker walks by and hears the
rat-tat-tat-tat of the conversation, that person may well feel
left out. Ill feelings take hold: Are they talking about me?
There are people who use their native tongue, be it Spanish
or Vietnamese or Russian, as I have heard in stores in Central
Florida, perhaps to gossip about others around them. That's rude.
But most of the time, people are simply speaking in the language
they feel most comfortable using among each other.
The point of all this?
The misguided drive for English-only laws.
Arizona voters narrowly approved one sweeping initiative that
barred Arizona state workers from using any language other than
English while on the job or while performing official duties.
The law even provides for penalties for violators.
The Arizona Supreme Court declared that the law violates constitutional
free-speech and equal-protection rights. Last week, the U.S. Supreme
Court let stand that state court ruling without comment.
What else was left to say?
Such a law would destroy the very core of American freedom.
This nation's Founding Fathers concluded as much and, in fact,
translated the U.S. Constitution into several languages to spread
Throughout this nation's history, there have been other languages
spoken and written in official corners, including bilingual English-German
ballots in Pennsylvania during the 1800s.
During Ellis Island days, the courts started to make sure that
immigrants charged with crimes had translators, if needed. How
else to ensure justice?
A lawyer for Arizonans for Official English said that the Arizona
Supreme Court ruling striking down the English-only law would
result in "a constitutional mandate for multilingualism on
It would ensure that, in cases involving a life-threatening
medical emergency or a legal issue, the government would try to
find someone to translate. That's what past court decisions pertaining
to English-only laws have stated.
English's dominance as the world's premier language for trade,
finance and political discourse won't be damaged one iota. And
the United States will be ever stronger for such freedom.