English First: How Language Bill Translates Here

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Byline: Tara Malone Daily Herald Staff Writer

A day after U.S. senators declared English the country's "common and unifying language," suburban leaders struggled to envision what the edict could mean for city halls, school districts and businesses.

And the early forecast was not much - at least, not much yet.

The Senate's bid to make English a unifying language would have little effect at the local level, experts said. But if the effort to make English a national language succeeds, as initially proposed, the potential trickle down effect to the local level remains unclear.

"It's too soon to tell," said Annette Vitale-Salajanu, an immigration expert with the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign.

Even as immigrant communities take root in the suburbs, bringing with them languages such as Spanish, Polish and Tagalog, the day- in, day-out operations of most schools, villages and businesses occur in English. But offering information in myriad languages, authorities say, helps keep people informed - whether in English, Spanish, Polish or any other common language.

Applying for asylum, green cards or citizenship occurs in English only. But ballots in some election precincts appear in English, Chinese and Spanish. Village notices or promotions often appear in two languages. Same goes for many school newsletters.

But ultimately, doing almost anything with schools or government- such as applying for a business permit or a pet license - requires people to deal in English, officials say, and that is unlikely to change with or without a congressional mandate.

"To be successful and get ahead in this country, you've got to speak English. That's just the way it is," said Round Lake Mayor Bill Gentes, who speaks Spanish fluently. "Why suddenly now do we have this taking place?"

The answer to that question lies in the debate over immigration reform sweeping the country and Congress.

That discussion led to Thursday's vote to make English a national language, though a majority of senators then adopted a separate amendment with milder wording to make English a "unifying language."

Excluded from the measure are bilingual ballots and court interpreters, forms of language assistance protected by law. But immigrants seeking citizenship still must show a "sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in everyday life."

Which version of the Senate language ends up in the immigration reform package will depend on negotiations with the House of Representatives.

"By the time this act is really implemented, you may find the impact may not be as harsh in the long run," Vitale-Salajanu said. …