| Bush: English not his strong point
Washington, May 19: Two hundred and thirty years after America won its independence from the British, English is finally the national language of the US. Well, almost.
Senators voted yesterday, 63 in favour and 34 against, to designate English as their national language.
Their vote brings to near fruition an effort started more than a century ago by President Theodore Roosevelt.
America’s 26th President had said all those living in the US “must also learn one language and that language is English”, but this country’s liberal, immigrant traditions had so far disapproved of the idea of a single national language.
Yesterday’s Senate vote, however, is only the first step on a long road towards bestowing “national” status on the language of those who once colonised America.
The House of Representatives must approve a similar measure and then the President has to sign the legislation into law.
An immigration bill passed by the House in December did not include this provision, but as American public opinion heats up on the issue of illegal immigration from Latin America, there is strong support among Congressmen for such a move.
In California and Texas, two of America’s bigger states, the majority of residents are now presumed to be non-Whites.
There are significant areas in these two states where it is hard to find anyone who speaks English, where it is impossible to locate a restaurant menu in English and billboards and shop names are only in Spanish.
Yesterday’s Senate vote stops short of efforts to designate English as America’s “official” language.
That would have required all government business here to be transacted in English.
According to the new legislation, government services and publications now offered in other languages would continue to be available.
The Senate’s decision mandates that no one has “a right, entitlement or claim to have the government of the US or any of its officials or representatives act, communicate, perform or provide services or provide materials in any language other than English”.
The Senate vote is part of a Republican effort to exploit the xenophobia here and create alarm over illegal immigration as a way to stem the loss of popular support for President George W. Bush among conservatives in recent months.
Republicans also hope to use the paranoia here against large-scale immigration from Latin America to win seats in the Congressional poll in November: present trends are that they may lose control of the Senate and the House.
But Democrats with large English-speaking or White voters have also supported the move.
Harry Reid, the Senate’s Opposition Democratic leader, strongly disapproved of the bill to make English the national language. “I really believe this amendment is racist. I think it is directed basically to people who speak Spanish.”
Reflecting the divisions in America and among its politicians on the issue, the Senate also voted for a second legislation which would make English this country’s “common and unifying language”.
Both provisions will now go to a “conference” with the House, where differences between the two chambers of the legislature will be addressed in an effort to evolve a common position in law.
The developments on Capitol Hill follow a big controversy last month over a Spanish version of America’s national anthem, which has infuriated English-speaking Americans.
“I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English,” President Bush said at the height of that controversy.
“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,” he said in an effort to cool tempers on this issue.