|The Importance of Our English Language|
|The U.S. Supreme Court ruled April 24 in a very significant case that concerns our right to respect and legislate English as our national language. Alexander v. Sandoval involved a Spanish-speaking woman, Martha Sandoval, who demanded that Alabama give her the state driver’s license test in Spanish. Alabama refused, based on the section added to Alabama’s Constitution in 1990 declaring English “the official language of the state of Alabama.” Sandoval mounted a class-action lawsuit under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that “language” should come under the statute’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of “national origin.” She won in the District Court and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court reversed.
The Supreme Court’s ruling considered only the single issue of an individual’s right to sue under the Civil Rights Act based on “disparate impact” rather than on intentional discrimination, and the Court ruled against this private right of action. The high Court did not discuss any of the issues involved in the importance of the English language. However, the effect of this decision is that laws that require the English language do not violate anybody’s civil rights, and no one can claim he is discriminated against because federal and state governments and public schools exclusively use the English language.
Congress should immediately rescind Clinton’s unconstitutional attempt to create new law and the regulations that followed, and defund the busybody bureaucrats in the various departmental civil rights divisions who are trying to enforce what the Supreme Court has now invalidated.
Special-interest lobbies have been laboring for years to undermine English as our national language, and they’ve been using the power and money of government and the public schools to achieve their goal. This must be stopped.
Our federal and state governments and public schools should speak to us only in the language of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The Supreme Court in the Sandoval case has given us the opportunity to cut off all taxpayer funding from the agencies and schools that promote and accommodate other languages, and also from the busybody bureaucrats in the various departmental civil rights divisions who are trying to enforce what the Supreme Court has now invalidated.
1. The United States was founded with English as our language. The U.S. Constitution is written and implemented in English, and there is no official version in any other language.
All major legal materials are in English, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Presidential speeches, and Congressional debates. All statutes are in English. All judicial decisions are in English. This enormous body of law developed in English over more than 200 years cannot be translated into another language without altering, at least slightly, the constitutional principles themselves.
Translating 200-plus years of judicial interpretations into a different language would change their meaning. Imagine the Supreme Court being required to review lower court opinions written in a different language. That would introduce substantial translation complexities and interferences with the judicial process. Creating multiple translations of the same opinion would create multiple and divergent versions of the law itself. If multilingual official versions of statutes, regulations, or judicial opinions were promulgated, different lines of precedent could develop depending on which language was preferred by a judge.
Common law in the United States and our Bill of Rights are built on 500 years of jurisprudence — a written Rule of Law – defined and applied in English. This law implicitly presumes a single language so that a consistent body of case law may be developed. Constitutional terms such as “due process of law” and “common law” lack precise equivalents in other languages. Other constitutional law terms such as “freedom of speech,” “cruel and unusual punishments,” “involuntary servitude,” and “high crimes and misdemeanors” lack identical counterparts in other languages.
The right to a public trial requires that the public understand the language spoken at the trial, and the right to a reasoned judicial decision assumes that the decision is written in a language that the public understands. The right to petition the government assumes that the government and the public speak a common language. The right to see a warrant prior to allowing a search and seizure assumes that the recipient can understand the language of the agent presenting the warrant.
Congress can no more require states or executive departments to depart from English in their official actions than Congress could draft an official Constitution or Declaration of Independence translated into a different language. States joined the Union based on a one-language legal system, and states have the authority to adhere completely to that language in their official documents and actions.
Translating key terms of the Constitution would modify them without complying with the Article V amendment process because translation necessarily involves changes in meaning. An idea simply does not pass from one language to another without change. No one should be allowed to circumvent the amendment process by promulgating the Constitution or our statutes in a different language.
2. Familiar American political terms cannot be precisely translated into other languages. In particular, the language of the conservative ideology cannot be accurately translated into other languages.
The vision of our Constitution, and the immense individual liberty and economic opportunity that resulted, are inseparable from our language. Our view towards individual rights and privileges is shaped by the language in which those rights and privileges are defined. Professor Edward Sapir of the University of Chicago and later of Yale University wrote, “No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.” The theory that people who speak different languages have a different world view is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Even a familiar phrase such as “the American dream” encounters thorny problems of translation to other languages used in the Americas, where “America” does not mean the United States. The “American dream” cannot be translated as “the United States dream” because it’s not a government dream; it’s the dream of the individuals who seek to achieve and prosper in our unique land of freedom and opportunity.
Many terms fundamental to our American structure of government have no meaning to people in other countries, such as “federalism” and “state’s rights.” Most of the treaties written under United Nations auspices make no allowance for the basic fact that many areas of law involve matters within the jurisdiction of the several states. Other American political terms that cannot be accurately translated include “rule of law,” “limited government,” “separation of powers,” and “gerrymandering.”
The language barrier poses particular disadvantages for conservatives and Republicans because there are so many terms that define their ideology that do not have the same meaning in other languages. The terms “conservative” and “conservatism” cannot be accurately translated. Likewise for dozens of political and legal terms so essential to the conservative ideology, such as “less government,” “limited government,” “individual liberty,” “private enterprise,” “free market,” and “grassroots.” The conservative ideology that government is the problem, not the solution, is not meaningful to people who do not speak our language.
Conservatives and Republicans are finding it very difficult to elect candidates in districts that have large numbers of non-English-speaking voters. They just don’t hear the conservative message because our words and phrases cannot be easily and accurately translated into other languages.
3. English is becoming the world’s language of the 21st Century and this is no time to discourage U.S. residents or immigrants from learning English. English is now the second most widely spoken language in the world, with only Chinese dialects spoken by more people. English is overwhelmingly the second language of choice for non-English-speaking people. English is the official language of the European Central Bank and the working language of the Asian trade group ASEAN.
In multilingual continental Europe, a fierce battle over language popularity appears to be ending with English emerging as the standard for the 21st century. The Germans have given up trying to persuade more Brits to learn their language and, instead, are now promoting English as the language of the 21st century, with lessons for children as young as six. Germany’s leading newspaper produces an eight-page English edition and declares that “English is going to be the lingua franca of the next century.”
Switzerland has three official languages, German, French, and Italian, plus a fourth language spoken in one canton, Romansh. But Switzerland recently adopted English to be taught as the second language of choice, rather than one of its official languages.
4. The laws mandating the use of the English language by air traffic controllers are proven to be essential to public safety. The best way to minimize misunderstandings that can cause airplane accidents is to require that licensed pilots and air traffic controllers understand English – which is exactly what most non-English-speaking countries around the world now require. Consider some examples of airplane accidents and how they cry out for a mandatory English test for pilots and controllers, both in the U.S. and worldwide.
In 1993, Chinese pilots flying a U.S.-made MD-80 were attempting to land in northwest China. The pilots were baffled by an audio alarm from the plane’s ground proximity warning system. The pilot’s last words before the crash were discovered on the cockpit recorder: “What does ‘pull up’ mean?”
The worst air disaster of all-time was the crash of a Dutch KLM 747 into a Pan Am 747 in the Canary Islands in 1977. The official report found that “inadequate language” was a cause. The Dutch pilot used the phrase “we are now at take-off” when he meant to state that he was now taking off. He roared down the runway, crashed into another plane parked on the runway, killing 583 persons on both planes.
The famous crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades in 1996, killing all 110 on board, was caused by mistakenly loading oxygen canisters as cargo. The investigation found that the canisters labeled as “repairable” had been misunderstood as “empty.” The National Transportation Safety Board suggested that the use of non-English speaking mechanics may have been a problem.
In absolute and percentage numbers, car accidents far outnumber airplane accidents. In 1998, 21.3 million drivers were involved in motor vehicle accidents in the United States. To minimize injuries and deaths after an accident, effective communication among numerous strangers is essential. These communications include immediately directing traffic around the accident, discussing the situation with police and paramedics, exchanging information among those involved in the accident, and making arrangements to remove vehicles and passengers.
Inability to communicate in traffic situations could result — as with airplane accidents – in unnecessary safety hazards and even loss of life. Licensees should be able to understand basic instructions, directions, and road signs in the English language.
5. There would be no limit to the accommodations that states would have to make for other languages on licensing tests, if the Supreme Court had not reversed the lower court. The states could have been required to rewrite their driver’s license test in the four to five thousand languages in current use in order to accommodate every future applicant. That would have created not only an enormous bureaucratic burden for the states, but also a legal puzzle as to where, if at all, a limit could be imposed on how many languages would have to be translated. Would a foreign language test have to be provided to anyone and everyone, or only if the number of applicants in a single foreign language reached a certain number — and if so, what number? Would the courts have to deal with suits challenging a constantly changing number?
This slippery slope would extend to other licenses. If driver’s license tests had to be provided in multiple languages, so also would other licensing tests administered by the state. Should a physician be able to demand that a medical licensing test be provided to him in a foreign language? Can an attorney demand that a state bar exam be in a foreign language? Likewise for electricians, mechanics, accountants, engineers, barbers, and numerous other licensed practitioners. As new technologies become the pattern, would the states be required to provide internet services in other languages, or to allow tax returns to be filed in other languages?
Requiring the states to translate licensing tests into other languages would inevitably result in requiring them to translate into other languages the statutes and judicial opinions on which the tests are based.
The Supreme Court already held in Employment Div. v. Smith that we do not have to provide exceptions from generally applicable laws for religious practices. It should certainly follow that a state should not have to provide exceptions from generally applicable laws (such as requiring a test to get a driver’s license) in order to accommodate languages other than English.
The lower court erroneously assumed that requiring English is detrimental to applicants. This fails to consider the enormous offsetting economic benefits available to those who are encouraged to learn English, whether through a driver’s license requirement or otherwise. While English requirements have a disparate adverse impact on those who refuse to learn basic English, they have an enormously positive impact on those who comply with the requirements and then are able to enter the mainstream of American academic and economic life.
6. The United States now has 40 million residents who are not proficient in the English language. If states do not mandate a single official language for state documents and tests, the tide will turn toward language balkanization rather than a united nation.
A chilling illustration of this type of balkanization has unfolded in nearby Quebec, Canada. Language division has led to a movement for secession by the French-speaking Quebec residents from primarily English-speaking Canada. After losing by a substantial margin in 1980, the secession movement continued to grow and nearly succeeded in its second referendum in 1995 when voters narrowly rejected the secession of Quebec from Canada by a margin of only 50.6 to 49.4 percent. Driven by language differences, this secession issue has disrupted Canadian politics and caused violence and economic losses.
National Public Radio aired an interview with the President of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, on April 24, 2001, in which she talked about the importance of language to national identity. Latvia is seeking to join both NATO and the European Union but first has to deal with the large numbers of non-Latvians who were transported to Latvia by the old Soviet Union. Today, only 52% of the population are ethnic Latvians. The President made it very clear that Latvia is not willing to accept them as Latvian citizens until they pass a Latvian language test, because language is the test of whether they want to be part of the Latvian nation. Mrs. Vike-Freiberga lived in Canada for a number of years and doesn’t want Latvia’s language dilemma to bring the divisive problems that Quebec has suffered.
History provides many examples of how language differences lead to conflict, division, demands for separate government, and even secession. As Abraham Lincoln said in his famous speech to the Republican Illinois State Convention in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Although Lincoln was speaking about slavery, this principle holds true for language. The promotion of language balkanization leads to irreconcilable enmities and even political separatism.
In our nation’s struggle to avoid secession through the Civil War, moral opposition to slavery was supplemented by powerful unifying economic forces. In Lincoln’s annual address of 1862, he declared that the United States could not be broken up because it formed an indivisible economic unit, and that its prosperity was dependent on its economic unity. Lincoln observed that, even if the United States did disintegrate over slavery, economic incentives “would, ere long, force reunion, however much of blood and treasure the separation might have cost.”
These economic incentives for political unity are now diminished by powerful forces trying to drive us into a global economy and electronic commerce. Protective tariffs have been much reduced by international agreements, and the “euro” is replacing national European currencies. There may be less economic reason to stay together any more. Emotional and legal demands by pockets of special-interest voters demanding that government speak their non-English language could now outweigh economic considerations.
7. How do we assimilate as Americans people who come here from so many other continents and cultures? Surely the best, quickest, most obvious, and most efficient way is to teach them to speak English. Immigrants who come to America want to be Americans and to enter our social, political and economic mainstream. Speaking English is the admission ticket to that road. Without it, immigrants are forever relegated to menial jobs.
“Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” must ensure that the people have the power to require that our federal and state governments speak to us in a common language. We must have the authority to require that our statutes be in English — the language of the Constitution — and that those statutes be implemented in English, such as through licensing tests.
Winston Churchill once observed, “This gift of a common tongue is a priceless inheritance.” Theodore Roosevelt stated the case even more strongly: “We must have but one flag. We must also have but one language. That must be the language of the Declaration of Independence, of Washington’s Farewell address, of Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech and second inaugural. We cannot tolerate any attempt to oppose or supplant the language and culture that has come down to us from the builders of this Republic.”
The English language is the most important tie that binds us together as a nation. Our public schools should be mandated to teach all children in English. The language of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution is fundamental to our national identity and to our destiny. Without it, we will cease to be one nation out of many, e pluribus unum.
Eagle Forum filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Alexander v. Sandoval on the side of preserving the official use of English.