Jehovah said: "Look! They are one people and there is one language for them all . . . Why, now there is nothing that they may have in mind to do that will be unattainable for them. Come now! Let us go down and there confuse their language that they may not listen to one another's language." -- Genesis 11:6-7.
According to the biblical story, the use of a common language made people so powerful, enabled them to do such audacious things, that Jehovah Himself was moved to put an end to it.
Sen. S. I. Hayakawa would resent the characterization, but he is trying to undo God's work -- at least in America. No Babel of tongues for the Senate's best-known semanticist. He wants Americans to speak like Americans, in proper English. To that end, he has introduced a constitutional amendment declaring English to be the official language of the United States.
"Throughout our history, we have sucessfully merged many cultures into one unique society," the Californian observed in a letter supporting his proposal. u"One of the reasons we have been able to do this is that our immigrants have learned the language of this land -- English. tThis allowed them to quickly join the mainstream while still retaining the essence of their own native cultures. So we became a melting pot, with each linguistic and ethnic group pouring its own talents and special visions into the great mix that is the United States of America."
Now all that is threatened -- not by Jehovah, but by misguided mortals who, with the best of intentions, are building a Tower of Babel whose shaky foundation is the notion that every language group is entitled to keep its own language intact without the necessity of learning America's common tongue.
What constitutes the senator's evidence? "In 1975, for instance, we amended the Voting Rights Act to allow ballots to be printed in various languages. This law runs counter to the requirement that applicants for citizenship have a basic knowledge of English. So while we tell our newcomers that they must learn English in order to become citizens, we then provide them with ballots in their native languages.
"Bilingual education programs, which begans as a means to accelerate the learning of English, have regressed through the years. The Carter administration finally proposed the so-called "Lau' regulations, which would have required school districts to teach non-English speaking students academic subjects in their own native languages. The Reagan administration overturned those regulations before they were put into effect, but I believe it is important that we ensure this type of misguided program is not re-established in the future."
I suppose it's safe to say that hardly any American believes that we ought to have a hodgepodge of language groups, each largely incapable of understanding the others. And yet it is not hard to share something of Hayakawa's concern.
A visit to Miami, with its bilingual signs and its want ads for bilingual workers, offers a glimpse of what the California Republican fears may lie ahead. It doesn't take much imagination to foresee the time when a mayoral candidate in Miami could conduct a campaign entirely in Spanish -- and win. Such a prospect will strike as essentially un-American even those of us who would be pleased to see a Cuba-born Floridian elected to office, or who count it a special brand of progress that a Mexican American has been elected mayor of san Antonio.
I admit to being vaguely disturbed at the notion of printing ballots in languages other than English -- perhaps because voting is so close to the essence of citizenship.
In addition, as Hayakawa observes, "there is always the danger that activists will try to politicize linguistic differences and create a separatist movement such as Canada is experiencing."
Still Hayakawa's proposed constitutional amendment seems too drastic a cure for a relatively minor problem. I have no objection to establishing English as the official langauge of the United States. Indeed, I thought it already was.
But the proposal would also prevent any requirement -- even by state and local officials -- for bilingual education, though it would "allow transitional instruction in the English language to help non-English-speaking students to become proficient in English." (Suppose a local school board determined that the best way of ensuring English proficiency was through a bilingual program?)
More problematical yet is the provision that would "prevent any requirement for the use of any other language in an official capacity." The senator says his amendment would "permit" the use of bilingual street signs, such as those in Washington's tiny Chinatown, or danger signs in whatever language(s) served to maximize the public safety. It's hard to see how that square with a flat prohibition against requiring "the use of any other language in an official capacity." If the city council couldn't legislate such bilingual signs, how would they come to exist?
Hayakawa has highlighted a real problem, or at least a serious potential one. But his proposed solution seems likely to exacerbate it.