Monday, March 14, 2005

America is awash in foreign languages, even in rural areas, and some members of Congress say that is building support to declare English the nation’s official language.

U.S. English Inc., an advocacy group working for a declaration that English is the official language, says it found that 322 languages are spoken in the country, and 24 of those languages are spoken in every state and the District. California has the most languages spoken, with 207, while Wyoming had the fewest with 56.

Their report, released last week, follows closely Rep. Steve King’s introduction of an official-English bill in the House, and sets the stage for Mr. King’s renewed push for the legislation. The Iowa Republican says the time is right to move forward.

“The big reason is, this is the second Bush term. There were folks out there that didn’t want to put the president in a spot where he would have had to make a decision like this,” Mr. King says, and now that the president no longer has to seek re-election, “there’s no reason to back away so the White House doesn’t have controversy.”

K.C. McAlpin, executive director of ProEnglish, another group that supports the bill, says the Republican and conservative gains in both the House and Senate last election help — particularly among some of the freshman Republican senators.

“The support for this amendment is bipartisan, but there’s no question the strongest support comes from Republicans,” Mr. McAlpin says.

He says pressure might come from the states now that 27 states have made English the official language for government business and another five are considering bills to do so. “There’s a clear majority of states that have declared that, and if these other states come on board, we could be approaching 50 states in a few years,” Mr. McAlpin says.

Brent A. Wilkes, national executive director of League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the groups that opposes the bill, says nothing is likely to happen this year.

“I think it’s even less likely because the president is against it, and almost all the Democrats are against it, and even a majority of Republicans don’t support the measure,” he says. “I think the reason for that is, it’s really just a slap in the face. It doesn’t really do anything to promote English learning.”

A better solution than legislation, he says, would be to offer more English classes to teach immigrants.

Mr. King’s bill would require the federal government to conduct business in English, but would not put restrictions on languages spoken in private business dealings. Polls show overwhelming support among Americans for making English the official language, and Mr. King’s bill has about 60 co-sponsors.

Mr. King has been a supporter for years, even before he was first elected to Congress in 2002. It was the first bill he shepherded through the Iowa Senate, and honed his arguments during his six-year successful fight to get the bill passed there. “I’ve found a tremendous amount of energy on this in Iowa, and I don’t think Iowa is different from the rest of the country.”

A similar bill passed the House in 1996, but died in the Senate, and no bill has passed either chamber since that time.

“It comes down to this — a common language is the most powerful, unifying force ever known throughout all history of humanity,” he says. “We need to be, and remain, a unified people.”

Mr. Wilkes says most immigrants know that those who speak English have higher earnings, and if that isn’t an incentive to learn English, legislation won’t be an incentive, either.

He says immigrants want to learn English, and are doing better than past generations in the pace of learning. “It used to take three generations for immigrants to pick up English and have it as language of choice,” he says. “It’s now two generations.”

• Charles Hurt contributed to this article.

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