Opinion Columns & Blogs

Why can't they talk like us?

When I was growing up in Tampa, Fla., many downtown stores displayed a familiar message in the front window: "Se Habla Espanol."

By then the Cigar City had already witnessed the decline of its once dominant industry, but merchants still solicited the trade of first-generation immigrants from Cuba and other nations who had worked in its cigar factories.

I was a freshman in high school when Tampans rejoiced over the deposing of Cuba's military dictatorship by forces loyal to a bearded young rebel leader; before I graduated four years later, Tampa would experience the first of several waves of refugees fleeing Castro's regime.

Most of Tampa's immigrants developed at least a rudimentary facility with the English language. Some, who arrived as adolescents or older or who were unable to attend school because they had to work, never became fluent in the language of their adopted country.

My wife's paternal grandparents, from Sicily, were included in the latter group.

One generation

Millions of other American families need to go back only a generation to find a relative who didn't speak English fluently until long after immigration -- if ever.

By the time they retired, most of these new Americans got along pretty well in their second language, although many required assistance from a child or grandchild to decipher contracts or to prepare to take an exam for a driver's license.

English, according to the Census, is spoken by 97 percent of the U.S. population. Moreover, it is unofficially acknowledged as the language of international business and diplomacy. I read recently that Gordon Brown, now Britain's prime minister, predicted that by 2025 there will be more English-speakers in China than in the rest of the world combined.

Despite that English shows no signs losing its global dominance during this millennium, some South Carolina legislators are hellbent on making it illegal for state or local governments to publish documents in another language.

I don't recall all the tongues represented, but the road leading from the Charlotte airport to Billy Graham Parkway welcomes visitors in several languages, including German and Japanese. Charlotte officials should be glad their airport isn't situated a few miles further south, or they might be subject to arrest if they tried to add another welcome sign after the proposed S.C. law would take effect.

Several years ago my wife and I attended Parents Weekend at Wofford College in Spartanburg. The morning we checked out, we were the only guests in the lobby not conversing in German or French. It was then I first had a sense of how deeply the Upstate had been drawn into the global economy..

I can't remember the last time I bought an appliance that didn't come with instructions in Spanish and French, as well as in English. Major U.S. manufacturers have a better grasp of consumers than our politicians do on their constituents.

Critics of the push to marginalize non-English speakers point out that because state law already prohibits illegal immigrants from obtaining a driver's license in South Carolina, making it illegal to publish instruction manuals in any language but English would serve only to punish the innocent.

The real motive

Public safety isn't the point, of course. What's behind this rush to enshrine English as the exclusive language of government is the age-old instinct to discriminate against people who look or sound different from the prevailing majority.

University of Florida law professor Juan Perea, who equates English-only legislation with Jim Crow laws of the last century, points out that our founding fathers were mindful of a polyglot population when they required the U.S. Constitution be published in German, French and English.

More than two centuries later, when English's hold on this democracy has never been firmer, the lemmings we elect to the Legislature are rushing to jump off an ideological cliff to protect a linguistic homogeneity that had never existed.

In his victory speech following the recent state Democratic primary, Barack Obama paid homage to South Carolina by reciting the state motto: "While I breathe, I hope"

Little did he know that some legislators want to adopt a different state motto: "You ain't from here, are you, boy?"