WASHINGTON–I’ve been trying to follow the debate over making

WASHINGTON–I’ve been trying to follow the debate over making English the official” language of the United States. Now I’m asking for help. Will someone please tell me, in plain English, just what the argument is about?

I listen to each side in turn, often nodding vigorously my agreement. And yet, after each new installment in the long-running battle, I’m left wondering what is being attacked–or defended.

I agreed with Sen. Bob Dole (who triggered the latest skirmish with a September speech in Indianapolis) when he said America needs the glue of language to help hold us together.” Who could disagree? I approved his notion that the public schools should provide the language classes our immigrants and their families need, as long as their purpose is the teaching of English” but not multilingual education as a means of instilling ethnic pride or as a therapy for low self-esteem or out of elitist guilt over a culture built on the traditions of the West.”

On the other hand, who isn’t made a little uneasy over the idea of putting needless obstacles in the path of newcomers to America? Andrew Ward, who writes frequently for The Washington Post, speaks of the foreign-born who live and do business in his West Coast neighborhood, and asks: What does their clumsiness with this complex and unfamiliar language have to do with their being Americans, with their wholehearted embrace of American principles, with their braving so much more to come to this country than the rest of us can even imagine?”

One side evokes Quebec, which recently came near to separating from Canada over the question of English-speaking dominance. The other evokes an elitist bigotry that is unsympathetic to newcomers whose language and culture are too different.”

And then I wonder: In what way does the current status of English threaten to dissolve the glue that holds America together? I have worried publicly about our too-easy tendency to split America into its component parts, to make too much of our differences and too little of our similarities. I have gone so far as to suggest that our pointless factionalism (around ethnicity, race, culture, sex, politics and virtually anything else that can serve as a group marker) threatens to rip us apart at the seams.

But of all the things that threaten our unity as a nation, language seems fairly far down the list. Indeed, apart from the single issue of bilingual education, usually involving Spanish-speaking immigrants, it’s hard to think of a real-life target for Dole’s proposal.

Is English-as-the-official-language just another stick with which to clobber Hispanic Americans?

But if so, how? Surely no one has proposed that we should forbid Americans to speak in any language but English. Is the whole exercise aimed at ending the occasional publication of government documents in languages other than English? At removing the multilingual signs in California hotels? At eliminating Spanish-language ballots in south Florida? Would making English the official language mean that Washington, D.C., could no longer seek out bilingual police officers or 911 operators? That Chinatown’s street signs would have to come down?

The more I think about it, the more I think it doesn’t mean anything.

A frequent argument of the English-first crowd is that bilingual education doesn’t work very well–that it may even retard the development of fluency in English. They may be right. But isn’t that the province of pedagogy rather than law? Surely Dole wouldn’t want a national law forbidding any particular teaching technique.

Indeed it’s hard to know what he does want with his official English” idea. And it is equally hard to figure out what harm the other side fears official English” would do.

What does seem obvious is that the English language is not just the glue that holds America together but also the sine qua non for academic, political and economic success here. But it also seems clear that most immigrants don’t have much difficulty figuring any of this out.

So tell me, please, Cual es el pleito? Just what is this fight about?

William Raspberry, reared in Okolona, is a columnist for The Washington Post Syndicate.

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