English Language Unites a Diverse Nation

Article excerpt

Insisting that all our citizens are fluent in English is a welcoming act of inclusion and insist we must. We need the glue of language to help hold us together.

-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole

Of course Dole was playing politics, catering to the American Legion at whose convention in Indianapolis he was speaking last week.

Of course he was trying to win points with the hard-core political right, to keep its support from swinging to more conservative presidential candidates.

Of course he was flag waving, parading Americana themes, sounding so many patriotic notes you could almost hear Sousa in the background.

Even so, Dole is right. He is right about making English the official language of government. He is right about insisting that immigrant children learn English quickly in school. And he is right that the current trend toward pushing multiculturalism and diversity has gone too far, emphasizing what divides us instead of what unites us.

Dole made his points just a week after the U.S. Census Bureau reported with surprise that the percentage of foreign-born people in the United States has been growing at a record pace. The United States now has the highest percentage of foreign-born people in 55 years. More than 22.6 million people - 8.7 percent of us - are immigrants.

From 1990 to 1994, almost as many immigrants - 4.5 million - have come to the United States as during all of the 1970s. One-fourth of the people living in California were born in other countries.

Dole's reminder comes during a summer that has seen ethnic passions tear Bosnia into bloody shards, Rwanda become a slaughterhouse for Tutsis and Hutus and parts of the former Soviet Union implode in fighting. It has also seen continued ethnic and bilingual bitterness in Quebec; that province may yet pull itself away from the rest of Canada.

Diversity and multiculturalism should be welcomed and treasured. But this country must have stronger bonds to hold us together in peace and mutual appreciation, lest we become a Balkanized and volatile mix of prickly minorities scuffling for territory, entitlements, power and more of the American pie.

A commitment to a common language is one obvious answer, as Alexis de Tocqueville recognized a century and a half ago when he wrote, "The tie of language is perhaps the strongest and the most durable that can unite mankind."

According to the 1990 census, 327 languages are spoken in the United States. It would be impossible to print ballots, write laws and do government business in all of them. (Canada spent $6.7 billion in a decade to satisfy its official requirements to use French along with English.)

But many state governments are at least trying. …