Senate Vote Reignites Debate Over English Language

May 23, 2006 at 1:15 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The president said it clearly last week: If illegal immigrants are to get on the path to U.S. citizenship, they will have to embrace the English language.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: English is also the key to unlocking the opportunity of America. English allows newcomers to go from picking crops to opening a grocery, from cleaning offices to running offices, from a life of low-paying jobs to a diploma, a career, and a home of their own.

GWEN IFILL: The debate over speaking English has recently been re-ignited as immigration reform makes its way through Congress. Should English be the nation’s official language, the national language? Isn’t it already?

GEORGE W. BUSH: El hijo de mi hermano…

GWEN IFILL: Many of the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants who live and work in the United States remain wedded to their native language. Sometimes cultures clash, as occurred recently when music promoters recorded a Spanish language version of the national anthem.

GREG WALDROP: I mean, you’ve got different people from all over the world that come. And, you know, people that might not necessarily understand English, they want to hear the national anthem. You know, why not?

GWEN IFILL: The president waded into that debate at a White House news conference.

GEORGE W. BUSH: … because I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English. And I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English, and they ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English.

GWEN IFILL: Tensions surrounding the language issue surfaced again when Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe proposed mandating English as the national language.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), Oklahoma: This is your last chance to vote to make English the national language.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader: I really believe this amendment is racist. I think it’s directed basically to people who speak Spanish.

GWEN IFILL: But that approach, as well as a competing amendment that declares English the “common and unifying language” of the nation, passed. Neither statute, however, would change or override existing laws. Still, far from Capitol Hill, the English language debate continues to rage.

MOISES ALCARAZ: I agree 100 percent. Why? Because we’re staying in America, and we’re supposed to speak English.

GWEN IFILL: And among recent additions to the ranks of legal immigrants here, there appears to be one overarching view.

JURGITA DARGIT: This is the United States of America, and we have to put — if really want to come here and be citizens, something we have to learn, I think.

English is the global language

GWEN IFILL: But part of the argument may be already be over: 47 million people living in the United States already speak some language other than English at home.

So is this a debate even worth having? We have two points of view. Carmen Fought is a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. And Mauro Mujica is chairman of U.S. ENGLISH, a group that believes immigrants should speak English. He emigrated to the United States from Chile in 1965.

Mr. Mujica, is this a cultural or a legal debate that we're having here?

MAURO MUJICA, CEO, U.S. ENGLISH: It's a cultural debate, I think. I mean, all immigrants know that we come to this country and that this country is an English-speaking country. It shouldn't be any surprise to anybody that this is an English-speaking country.

Part of assimilating or part of integrating -- which is a word that I prefer -- it's to learn the English language, the language of all Americans. People who came from all over the world and became one nation and who were able to communicate with each other, in spite of all their heritage in different countries, they can talk in one language: English.

And English, as a matter of fact, has become the global language right now, not because English is better than other languages. It's because it's convenient to be able to travel anywhere in the world and use a world language.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Pitzer (ph), I'm curious about your opinion about that, too. Are we having a cultural debate here or a legislative one?

CARMEN FOUGHT, Professor Linguistics, Pitzer College: Oh, absolutely, it's a cultural debate. And I actually agree with much of what Mr. Mujica said. I do think it's very important for people to learn English, and I do think it provides many economic and other opportunities. I just don't believe that making it the official language is the best way to accomplish that.

Enacted through legislation?

GWEN IFILL: Why not? Why wouldn't the federal government be expected to weigh in on something so critical?

CARMEN FOUGHT: Well, first of all, the government absolutely can weigh in on something so critical. For me, personally, I think it'd be nice if they consulted with linguists before they did so.

But, in any case, you have to, of course, see that passing a law making English the official language of the United States does not teach one single person English.

If they wanted to propose a bill to set aside huge amounts of money to fund ESL programs all across the country, I would be extremely in favor of that, strongly in favor of that, and so would most of my linguistics colleagues. The question is whether this is a good way to accomplish that.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mujica, is this the way you're supposed to be accomplishing this, by legislating or by coming up with extra money for English as a second language programs?

MAURO MUJICA: Well, you can't do everything in one bill. It's bad enough to try to pass one thing in Congress. If you add all sorts of other things that you would like, it's impossible to do anything.

GWEN IFILL: Well, beyond Congress, the broader idea.

MAURO MUJICA: So you have to do it in -- I'm an architect, and we're building the foundation right now. And you have to do it in steps. We're all for ESL. We're all for getting more money. But first we have to recognize that this is an English-speaking country, and then we have to begin providing funds to take care of it.

GWEN IFILL: There are 27 states which already have laws on the books which mandate English as the national language. What difference would federal intervention make?

MAURO MUJICA: Well, it would create a clear policy that, in the future, we're not going to be doing everything in the country in 322 languages that, according to the census, we have here. So, once we say, "OK, English is the language of the country, it's the national language," then let's go and fund all sorts of projects to teach English to the new immigrants.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Fought, in California, where you live, there has been a law like this on the books since 1986. What difference has it made?

CARMEN FOUGHT: Well, I personally don't think that the law in California is really comparable to doing it on the national level.

And I think the problem with passing such a law on the national level is exactly what we were just talking about, that it's not really about English. It's about the other languages. I'm all for encouraging the speaking of English, but I don't believe this amendment is about that.

It's exactly about what Mr. Mujica just said. It's about not speaking the other 352 languages, and that's the part that I disagree with, because this is a country that's been founded on religious, cultural and linguistic tolerance. And the minute that we begin to restrict the use of other languages, I think that we're taking a step backwards.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mujica, is this cultural or linguistic intolerance we're talking about?

MAURO MUJICA: No, this law doesn't restrict anybody from speaking another language. I speak four languages. I'm learning Russian right now. I speak Spanish with my American wife and my children.

This has nothing to do with other languages. This only has to do with government activities. U.S. ENGLISH encourage any American to learn other languages. It's a fantastic gift.

But when we're talking about government, the government has to decide we have one flag or we have 15 different flags. The government has to decide, you know, major things.

And this is a very major thing, that this country from the very beginning kept English as common language. We began acquiring lands from France and from Russia and from other places, and still those people -- and from Spain and Mexico -- and those people began speaking English. It's a matter of integrating everybody as a country.

Issue collides with immigration bil

GWEN IFILL: So is the debate that we're having today different from what we've talked about in the past, about English-only? Is this different?

MAURO MUJICA: No, English-only is a pejorative word used by the enemies of official language. We at U.S. ENGLISH would never agree to something called English-only. I would be the first one to be against it.

GWEN IFILL: Because it would forbid people?

MAURO MUJICA: Yes, it's completely ridiculous to say that we're a country where we can speak only one language.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Fought, do you feel that this debate -- just step aside from a moment from whether the federal government should be involved or not -- do you think there's anything else underlying this debate, the fact that it never goes away, the fact that it is something which seems to touch so many buttons whenever it comes up?

CARMEN FOUGHT: Yes, I absolutely do. I think it is a debate that's come up over and over again in our history, from Benjamin Franklin worrying that we'd all understand up speaking German, to every time there's been a new wave of immigrants to the country -- in tide with this reaction to immigration in general, there's been reaction related to language.

It keeps coming up over and over again. And if this bill isn't passed this time, it probably will come up again in the future.

And I think it's a perfectly natural human reaction of anxiety to people that are foreign to us, languages that are foreign to us. It's natural if I hear people speaking about physics and I don't understand what they're saying, I can feel a little anxious and left out.

And I don't think it's coincidence that this amendment is coming so close after so much news about immigration and all these debates about immigration and the borders and so forth. I think it's intimately tied to that, and it's tied to anxiety and fear that people have.

But just as it keeps coming up, we can use this again and again as an opportunity to be more culturally aware of the resource that all our languages represent.

GWEN IFILL: When you say "anxiety," did Senator Reid take it too far when he said it was racism?

CARMEN FOUGHT: Well, let's say that racism is one of the possible results of anxiety. It may not always be that everyone who supports this amendment is racist. I certainly wouldn't say that.

But, you know, it is; it's a kind of xenophobia, I think, a fear about other languages and the possibility that they'll take over English, which there's absolutely no evidence for it in any way, shape, or form.

And that's why the Linguistic Society of America passed a resolution against declaring English the official language of the United States because we don't feel that it's endangered, and we feel that, in fact, it's a way of restricting other language.

Maybe not all by itself this amendment, but, as Mr. Mujica said early, in steps, in stages this could lead to first restricting those languages in the government and then in other settings.

Is English endangered?

GWEN IFILL: Mauro Mujica, do you think that English is endangered?

MAURO MUJICA: No, I don't think it's endangered. I think the country is in danger of being split up along linguistic lines unless we do something.

This is a new thing, and it has nothing to do with coincidence that this lady mentioned. U.S. ENGLISH started 23 years ago by Senator Hayakawa, himself a linguist. He was already worried 23 years ago. It has nothing to do with illegal immigration bills in Congress or whatever.

The problem is that, unless people who come to this country begin assimilating and integrating the way that used to be, we are going to separate along linguistic lines. We're going to lose some states where mostly another language will be spoken.

GWEN IFILL: Are we here -- I'm sorry, Dr. Fought, go ahead.

CARMEN FOUGHT: I'm sorry, but you're right. I mean, if it were the case that things were changing and we were speaking less and less English because there was a larger population, let's say, of Latinos in certain states, I could see why people would be very upset about that.

But many, many, many linguist researchers have studied patterns of language acquisition across the country, and current generations of speakers from other countries, including Spanish-speaking countries, are losing their mother tongue just as quickly as previous generations.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Well, we're going to have to leave the debate there for tonight. Thank you both very much.

MAURO MUJICA: You're welcome. Thank you.

CARMEN FOUGHT: Thank you very much, Gwen.