English as 'official' foolishness

Tuesday, March 6, 2001

For goodness sake, Iowa Legislature, go ahead and pass your ridiculous English as a Second Language law. Pose as if you are doing it to somehow help the immigrant in some kind of linguistic tough love. Be heroes to the fearful.

Frankly, I'm tired of hearing the lame arguments on behalf of a bill that isn't needed. English isn't particularly threatened, nor has anyone asked the state to do its business in a plethora of languages.

Answer me this. What will be different tomorrow if this law is passed? What will it accomplish? What will it change? It's an empty mandate that state officials say will force newcomers to learn English, but offers no real tools to make that happen.

Iowa welcomes immigrants warmly enough, when it sees open labor jobs that no one else wants. Then it feels threatened with the cultural differences that result.

Instead of celebrating its newfound human diversity, as Storm Lake has, the feeling at the statehouse seems to be that if we can just make English be our "official language," everything will be okay. We won't have to change.

Too late.

I'm not among those who think the proposed law will make immigrants unwelcome, however. I just don't think anyone, of any language or color or cultural bent, is going to pay a whit of attention to it.

Ah, whatever. I'm tired of fighting about it. Go ahead, knock yourselves out, legislature. Maybe if you have some extra time you can pass an official skin color, or hire rapper Eminem to work up an official state song. Be my guest.

But here's the deal.

For all these years the state legislature has piddled away on endlessly arguing this silly little bill, I figure it owes us something of substance in exchange.

Something beyond a couple of "welcome centers" for new Iowans to pick up colorful brochures and an "official language" to keep them under control.

You want English, legislators? I'm with you. English is and will always be the language in which business is conducted. Those who master the language quickly will have a better chance to get a better job, earn more money, get involved in their kids' school, find a volunteerism role, run for local government, tap resources, learn a new skill, or simply get to know more of their neighbors.

I wish it were as simple as just voting an official language law. If pressure equalled education, I would have done a lot better in those required French and Spanish courses back in junior high.

What an easy world it would be if we could solve every social need just by passing a neat little official law.

The law may prevent the state offices from having to make any real effort to communicate with the increasingly diverse population it may serve, true enough, although I'm hard pressed to see where that's such a good thing.

An official language law won't teach anyone to speak and write English, however. It won't instill a sense of community and opportunity that would inspire such efforts, either.

So pass the darn law, if it makes you feel good.

I was under the impression that we sent lawmakers to Des Moines this year with a clear mission to create nonpartisan help for schools and teachers, and to translate our economics into a more reasonable taxation environment for families, but I may have missed a memo somewhere.

Whatever the reason, lawmakers seem moved to waste more precious time and debate on this old party-lined warhorse of a non-issue. The term "smokescreen" comes to mind.

Let's give up fighting it. They will only bring it up, year after year after year, until they can get it. It's not worth the breath.

Go ahead, legislators, do what you have to do.

One thing, though.

When you pass an unneeded English as the Official Language law, what if we actually expect something positive to back it up?

Like real leadership toward community and schools; English as a Second Language programs that can actually help people learn English?

That's not as simple, neat or cheap as an "official language" bill, but it is what we need.

Storm Lake largely learned to include and educate people from diverse ethnic backgrounds by the seat of its Levis.

It hasn't been easy, and the state hasn't been a lot of help.

Storm Lake has shown that a great many newcomers want to learn and find a place in a community if they are encouraged and given the tools to do so.

And what do you know, it happened here without a puffed-up official language law, just a lot of people who were willing to reach out to one another, from both sides of the language barrier.

Go ahead, pass your little bill. But education, not mandates, is going to change the world.