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TX: Legislature to consider establishing official state language

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

By Kathleen Thurber
Staff Writer
Published: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 11:58 AM CST
'If people are coming into our country and want to assimilate into our country the first thing we do is speak the language. My family came from Ireland and we don't still speak Gallic.'


Tax records and home deeds will be among the state documents printed only in English starting Sept. 1 if a proposed House bill passes during the early part of the 81st Legislative session that starts Tuesday.

The bill, which proposes English be made the official state language to encourage assimilation of immigrants, save money and maintain the country's tradition of a common language, is meant not as a blockade to immigrants but as a way to further encourage the state to assist them in learning English proficiently, according to the bills' author Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, and some of its supporters.

"If people are coming into our country and want to assimilate into our country the first thing we do is speak the language," said Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, who helped introduce the topic in the House. "My family came from Ireland and we don't still speak Gallic."

It's an issue that's been brought up before and one that's passed in states like Missouri, Arizona and Utah with what representatives say brought little backlash, despite the large minority populations in parts of these states.

Some, though, describe the measure as a way to keep immigrants from future success, as it could make it difficult to enroll their children in school, understand simple government actions or even obtain a fair trial if brought into the judiciary system.

"We have concerns about anything that affects others' constitutional rights," said Rebecca Bernhardt, with the ACLU in Austin, "anything that would be implemented that would make it harder to vote or get due process."

Documents, such as voting material, that federal law sanctions must be printed in multiple languages would still be available in Texas in various forms.

More than 3.2 million Texans are limited in their English proficiency, according to 2007 Census data, including more than 800,000 who were born in the U.S.

The bill could help foster more equality among immigrants and encourage citizens to become better versed in English, said Rob Toonkel, spokeswoman for U.S. English, an organization formed to promote government movements to make English the official language.

Currently, she said, Texans likely can take their drivers license exam in Spanish or English. But, if they want to take it in Bulgarian, they're out of luck.

By specifying all documents must be in only English, she said, it promotes the unifying quality of a common language that has brought various immigrant groups together for years and gets rid of the favoring of any one foreign language.

The organization, she said, certainly doesn't want to outlaw speaking other languages or maintaining one's heritage. It simply wants to ensure that English-speaking does not become optional for large groups of Americans.

How far Texas' bill would take the sanction isn't entirely clear. It would apply to all government documents not required by the federal government to be multi-lingual and also to any "actions by the state or a political subdivision" of the state, according to the bill.

But, whether that means Spanish-speaking public school classrooms would have to go is unclear. Midland Independent School District Communications Director Woodrow Bailey said proposals like this have come up before with no result, so they don't speculate on what the outcome could mean until it comes closer to reality.

The bill, Flynn said, would not mean translators couldn't be available at government offices or in courtrooms to ensure those who haven't become proficient in English are assisted.

He and other representatives who support the measure do have the support of their constituents, according to one poll. Zogby International, an international public opinion tracking firm, found in its July 2008 poll of more than 800 Texas voters that 78 percent favor making English the official language. The results, according to their study, were consistent across party lines. However, such polls may not encompass the opinions of those less-than-proficient English-speaking citizens who traditionally have been less likely to register to vote than their counterparts.

From a strictly monetary standpoint, Flynn said, he supports the idea because there currently is a significant amount of state spending wasted on printing documents in several different languages that never are seen. Making a blanket policy to print everything in several languages, he said, is just as much wasteful as it is divisive to a state trying to unify its citizens.

The bill would not apply to private sectors, its supporters clarify. Speaking Spanish or another language at home or in one's business would be up to individuals, the government would only require English in government dealings.

"The government doesn't say you can't smoke," Toonkel said. "It just says you can't come into a government office and light up."


Kathleen Thurber can be reached at kthurber@mrt.com.

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