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The Best Thing We Can Do for Immigrants: Help Them Learn English

Government-mandated multilingualism, such as requiring that official documents be translated into multiple languages, is not just expensive. It also divides us.

Immigrants come to our country for better lives. Those who learn to speak English are propelled toward the American dream. Those who don't learn the language are destined to lurch on the periphery of society, subject to the whims of political pandering and government dependence.

Most Americans respect the rights of households and private entities to speak their native tongues, but most also recognize that enforced multilingualism in government separates us into unequal constituencies. This is why polls consistently show that Americans overwhelmingly support English as the official U.S. language.

The struggle for integration in our society was at the heart of our civil rights movement; indeed, in its watershed 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling the Supreme Court declared that "separate is not equal." Yet, multilingualism does separate people, invariably leading to tiered services that cement social strata. And government is perpetuating this by aggressively enforcing multilingualism for official business.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order requiring any entity that receives federal money to provide services in any language. Fourteen years later, zealous attorneys in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division are persecuting entities that fall short of compliance to Clinton's order and provisions of the Civil Rights Act in their services to limited-English-proficient (LEP) individuals.

One of the latest to feel the sting of multilingualism enforcement is Washington state's Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), which was investigated by the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Labor. L&I--which, among other things, is supposed to translate vital documents not only into Spanish but also into Russian, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian--was found deficient in its language-assistance programs. Duly contrite, L&I's hard-working and conscientious officials are diligently searching for solutions.

Those possible solutions, such as phone-based interpretation services, are expensive. Translating a single document can cost $200 or more. And L&I is training everyone--including those who never deal directly with its customers--to use these expensive services, even as the state's budget ax is poised to lop 15 percent from the general fund.

Public funds would be better used teaching LEP immigrants basic English. And "basic" is all it would take. Washington state has long had a program to simplify government terminology and generate clear writing. In March 2005, then-Gov. Christine Gregoire issued an executive order requiring state agencies to adopt principles of "plain talk" so that all letters, applications and instructions are written in plain language, not bureaucratic jargon.

My fiancé used to teach Italian. Some of her students were senior citizens. But after a few lessons, they were armed with enough skills to ask directions in Italian and thwart the most devious Rome taxi driver from taking them on circuitous routes to their hotels. Let's show LEP immigrants who are coming here for much more than a vacation a bit more respect. Let's have more confidence in them. Don't give them an interpreter, teach them to interpret. As a Chinese proverb says: "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Engage me and I learn."

America is an exceptional country, but we can still learn from some of our closest allies that have declared state-enforced multiculturalism a failure. As Nicolas Sarkozy put it when he was president of France, "We have been too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him." Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that immigrants to her country needed to do more to integrate--including learning German.

I am honored to have become a naturalized American citizen. Americans come from many cultures, but the motto that is emblematic of our dynamic spirit and has attracted masses yearning to breathe free is E pluribus unum: Out of many, one. We'll come closer to that ideal by helping immigrants integrate by learning English.


VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

An information-technology specialist for a Washington State agency.
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