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Jewish World Review June 28, 2000 /25 Sivan, 5760

Don Feder

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Consumer Reports

Speak English or scram -- FUNNY HOW EVEN IMMIGRANTS who are English-challenged learn to say "anti-discrimination lawsuit" fast enough.

Three former maids at the Boston Harbor Hotel are suing for what they imagine to be a violation of their civil rights. The act of injustice?

Asking them to speak English around guests.

The hotel says it encourages employees to use our common lingo so guests will feel comfortable. (You're walking down a corridor. Are the two maids conversing in Spanish talking about you?) It might also facilitate communication for guests who don't know the Espanol for "extra towels."

The maids probably have a good case. We have become a culture of language entitlement, where it's considered oppressive to ask employees to speak English or to expect immigrants to learn our language.

Linguistic coddling is a fact of everyday life. When I used the ATM machine at my new bank last week, the first message that popped up on the screen was, "Do you wish to continue in English?" (Yes, and I'd like my country to do the same.) For the 2000 census, 2.9 million questionnaires were printed in six languages, including Vietnamese, Korean and Tagalog.

A May 30 article in The Washington Times observes, "More and more immigrants, speaking diverse languages, are demanding that U.S. society deal with them in their native tongues."

These arrogant demands come with a price tag -- monetary and cultural. It's estimated the cost of translation services (for courts, schools, hospitals and other agencies) will grow from $11 billion in 1999 to $20 billion in 2004.

California gives driver's tests in 30 languages (New York in 23). Bilingual education, celebrated by Education Secretary Richard Riley, is the most costly form of language pampering. In 1998, Oregon alone spent $56 million on bilingual programs.

The federal government mandates foreign-language ballots in areas with large immigrant populations. I don't know what's scarier, giving a driver's license to someone who can't read road signs ("do not enter") or giving a license to participate in the democratic process to someone who can't read the daily newspaper in his community, not to mention the Constitution in the language in which it was written.

A multiculturalist bureaucracy and pandering politicians are fueling the trend. Clinton bureaucrats in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are relentlessly pursuing national-origin discrimination claims against employers with English policies, even though no federal court has yet declared speaking another language on the job to be a civil right. The EEOC will generously make an exception where it considers English essential to job performance, say air traffic controllers and operating-room nurses.

Vice President Al Gore recently told a Latino audience that while his first grandchild was "born on the Fourth of July, I hope my next is born on Cinco de Mayo." Will someone please tell Big Buddha that the latter is the national holiday of Mexico. It is not, as yet, an American holiday.

Gov. Jorge W. Bush, who carries around a copy of "Spanish for Dummies" (I'm not making this up) to help him address Hispanic gatherings, has criticized the official English movement as "only me without taking others into account."

It's not "me" or "others," but our -- as in our country. English is our cultural glue and the solvent in the melting pot. For most of our history, it allowed those from diverse cultures to become Americans, to learn to live with others who were radically different without wanting to kill them. In short, it kept the Balkans at bay.

It allowed this nation to take my immigrant grandparents from the Pale of Settlement (and yours from Italy, Poland or Cuba) and make them part of a nation where they could communicate with other Americans and identify with what became their adopted heritage.

If I moved to Mexico, I would feel a moral obligation to learn Spanish fluently and speak it in public. Not to do so would be to insult my new country. Immigrants who feel burdened by the requirement to speak English on the job, or anywhere else, are an affront to the American people.

The fault is as much ours as theirs. When they came here, we should have told them: Be one of us -- linguistically, culturally and emotionally -- or begone.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest book is Who's Afraid of the Religious Right. Comment on his column by clicking here.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate