Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack received a bill Wednesday that would make English the official language of the state
February 28, 2002 3:37 PM   Subscribe

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack received a bill Wednesday that would make English the official language of the state May be in violation of US law, but that aside for the moment, is this a good or bad idea?
posted by Postroad (48 comments total)
 
As an immigrant who came here at a young age, I can say that this is unquestionably a good idea. As a matter of fact, English ought to be the official language of the US, not just Iowa or other states. My belief is: if you come to the States, then you ought to know how to speak english, or learn.
posted by Rastafari at 3:54 PM on February 28, 2002


Bad: the government should not regulate culture. Let people speak what they want.
posted by phatboy at 3:57 PM on February 28, 2002


Bad idea.
posted by rodii at 4:02 PM on February 28, 2002


Good idea, bad legislation.
posted by Wulfgar! at 4:07 PM on February 28, 2002


Official business is already conducted in English or with interpreters. That's why some argue the bill is useless.
That being the case, I don't much care one way or the other.
posted by thirteen at 4:08 PM on February 28, 2002


As the article seems to state, the law is more useless than anything else. While it may or may not have been spawned by bigotry, most english-only laws give that appearance.

People coming to the States learn English if they are at all able to do so. It is the obvious price of doing business here, and no law is required.

If passed, this law would likely result in a thousand nit-picking ordinances about business signage, use of other languages in school, and many other non-issues. Most of these ordinances woud fly in the face of common sense. All of them would take up time and resources that could be better spent on something more important.
posted by frykitty at 4:09 PM on February 28, 2002


the government should not regulate culture. Let people speak what they want.

How is the government "regulating culture" with this? They are no outlawing foreign languages, they are simply saying that all official business will be executed in English. This is preferential to the government having to translate official documents (written in legalese that is generally already a borderline foreign langauge) into various languages or attempting to have translators available for official business which would be an enormous task.

I know third-generation Italian immigrants whose children speak nearly fluent Italian and I know children of first generation Hungarian immigrants who know how to swear fluently in Hungarian and precious little else. Keeping cultural ties alive is the burden of the individuals, not the burden of the state. Anyway, getting anything done in a government office in English is damned near impossible, why complicate matters?!
posted by RevGreg at 4:13 PM on February 28, 2002


Bad idea. Sounds like something the French would think up.
posted by tsarfan at 4:26 PM on February 28, 2002


As another immigrant to the U.S., I would have to agree with Rastafari. Government business should be conducted in English. As it stands now, the law probably is redundant in Iowa though.
posted by gyc at 4:31 PM on February 28, 2002


RevGreg:

I look at it in a free-market sort of way. A sort of "let the best culture win". IMHO societies which are going to progress are those which embrace change and evolve naturally. If that means that the US adopts foreign practices (such as language) so be it.

Government documents should be available in every (reasonable) language; otherwise, others will not be able to participate in government in even the most minimal sense.

"Keeping cultural ties alive is the burden of the individuals, not the burden of the state." I wholeheartedly agree, however you must see how easily this arguement can be turned around.

I think this question is moot in Iowa, however. I do find "english only" initiatives in California Amusing, because as I remember (4th grade state history), the original state constitution was written in both spanish and english.
posted by phatboy at 4:47 PM on February 28, 2002


English is for better or for worse, the "unofficial" official language of all states and very few people realistically expect to function well, which is why my mom's ESL classes are always well attended.
Although, making it official especially in Iowa, which is not exactly Ellis Island, smacks of defensiveness and also makes me wonder if the state legislature has too much time on their hands.
posted by jonmc at 4:49 PM on February 28, 2002


Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates for governor of Texas are to debate in Spanish.
posted by homunculus at 5:19 PM on February 28, 2002


Midwestern states like Iowa are experiencing an ever-growing influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Bills like this are a reaction to that demographic shift. In short, they're scared of having to deal with the problems Texas, Florida, and California struggle with, so they're nipping it in the bud and laying a foundation for a "learn English or leave" approach to government.
posted by daveadams at 5:25 PM on February 28, 2002


Without a common language to communicate with each other, there would be far less "culture" to enjoy or appreciate. As WulfGar! said, it's a good idea, but this particular piece of legislation probably isn't the best way to achieve it.
posted by davidmsc at 5:40 PM on February 28, 2002


Enforcing a defacto standard is pointless and just makes fringe groups angry.

There.
posted by holloway at 5:44 PM on February 28, 2002


This is a good symbolic, if relatively meaningless act. They should do it in Florida, and everywhere there's a big immigrant population as well.
posted by ParisParamus at 5:52 PM on February 28, 2002


Individual states should be allowed to do it if they want to Postroad, I don't see how it is unconstitutional (or in violation of US Law, as you put it) in any way.

When states write their motor vehicle licensing exams, they have to provide it in dozens of foreign languages. This is a huge inconvenience, and an added expense to translate the test into whatever foreign language. To be economically successful in much of the country, English is necessary. Furthermore, there are public safety issues caused by the language barrier. If you call a 911 dispatcher in my home town, and you don't speak English... you're screwed. It would be a shame if a tragedy occured because of this, but it won't, because all of the immigrants living in the area speak English. People learn, and adjust. And not one of these folks is being forced to learn the language, since they voluntarily came to this country.
posted by insomnyuk at 6:22 PM on February 28, 2002


Troll as legislation.
posted by Bixby23 at 6:22 PM on February 28, 2002


The right not to be discriminated against based on the language that you speak has been read into the Civil Rights Act as part of the protection against disrimination on the basis of national origin. Why? because xenophobic employers, government agencies, etc. were pruposely using bogus English-only policies to discriminate against people from foreign countries. I suspect that establishing an English-only requirement would spark a return to these practices in many parts of the country. (It would also likely (i hope) be invalidated by federal courts for violating the Civil Rights Act).

However, even putting civil rights concerns aside, undermining the right of people with limited English proficiency to obtain government services seems like a really bad idea from a practical perspective. How exactly do we as a country benefit from preventing folks that can't speak English from getting driver's licences or adequete treatment at a hospital? It seems to me that's a potential effect of this law.
posted by boltman at 6:23 PM on February 28, 2002


http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/vii.html -Civil Rights Act of 1964

Employers should be able to discriminate against people based on their linguistic skills when hiring. Why is an English only policy bogus? It's not racist, its a language requirement. Someone selling pickup trucks in Ohio would be an idiot to hire a salesman who could only speak broken English at best. Language skills are a job qualification, it doesn't make any sense to do it any other way. Employers have a right to hire the employee that they think will benefit them the most. Language is part of the package, and that point is unavoidable. Even the race and national origin requirement of the Civil Rights Act, for all of it's good intentions, only applies to the hiring practices of businesses that meet a certain specification, and it makes no outright mention of LANGUAGE. Further, it's damn near impossible to prove discrimination in most cases, especially since no two people are totally equal in talents, personality, experience, and abilities. If the minority just happens to be a little less qualified for the job, and they don't get hired, do they scream discrimination? I imagine most just look for another job, but there are always people willing to rob others through litigation. What if the minority is less qualified, but gets hired over a more qualified candidate because he/she is a minority? (quotas, or fear of lawsuits perhaps being the prime motivator)

Good intentions do not make good policy.
posted by insomnyuk at 6:51 PM on February 28, 2002


Although, making it official especially in Iowa, which is not exactly Ellis Island, smacks of defensiveness and also makes me wonder if the state legislature has too much time on their hands.

I suspect you've nailed it here ... there is a scent of defensiveness that seems to be emanating from this. Makes one wonder why in the world anyone thought this was necessary in the first place (it's Iowa for goodness sake ... is there some sort of demand that business be conducted in some other language?)
posted by MidasMulligan at 7:12 PM on February 28, 2002


Having an official language for government purposes seems reasonable, but I think it would be easy to make an argument for English and Spanish across the entire country. The U.S. is at least bi-lingual, imho.

Hell, when I left New York State several years ago and moved to Denver I was shocked at how much Spanish television, radio, and signing was in evidence. I moved back to New York and was shocked again when I discovered that more often than not the phone menus were presented in Spanish BY DEFAULT. Meaning, you had to press a number to get English.
posted by xyzzy at 7:18 PM on February 28, 2002


Tom Vilsack is a nutsack.

Well, thats all I have to say about it. As an iowan, I don't think it's that big of a deal. Almost no one here isn't fluent in english, and the government dosn't provide anything in any other languages anyway
posted by delmoi at 7:23 PM on February 28, 2002


BAD idea. I don't care if it's more conveniet.
posted by krakedhalo at 7:26 PM on February 28, 2002


It would require all official Iowa documents and meetings to be handled in English. (from the article)

It wouldn't apply to businesses, just the government, with one exception: If a mexican run business wanted to operate using only the Spanish language, they legally could, until they had to fill out the government tax forms. Seems pointless to me, everyone in Iowa probably does this anyway. Do note, though, that this isn't quite like the language laws in Quebec, which prohibit commercial English signs. The law the Iowa governor proposes doesn't do this, but if they wanted to emulate the Quebecois, this would be the first stupid step.
posted by insomnyuk at 7:27 PM on February 28, 2002


I'm still having a hard time understanding why it's a bad idea. I don't vare if there are growing Hispanic or Asian communities, it's understood that to live in this country, you should learn English and don't see the harm in it being enforced with law.
posted by gyc at 8:08 PM on February 28, 2002


it's understood that to live in this country, you should learn English

Where does this "understanding" reside?
posted by rodii at 8:16 PM on February 28, 2002


Without a common language to communicate with each other, there would be far less "culture" to enjoy or appreciate.

I'm really not certain about this. Culture - to at least some extent - is carried by language. In fact one of the things that makes Manhattan so damn interesting is that it is relatively normal to hear a half dozen languages spoken during the course of a four or five block stroll. It adds a remarkable richness to things.

I also suspect the cost issue may be a moot point in a few years anyway - translation software seems to get better on a yearly basis. 5 years from now it may take little more that selecting "Spanish" with a mouse from a drop-down box to translate any government document at will.

So far as the law and discrimmination goes ... I suspect people can take care of things better than any laws can. Business is already adapting well. Though based in New York, I work in one of the international divisions of my firm, and we do "discrimminate" - sort of - in hiring, in exactly the opposite sense of what is being mentioned in this thread ... we have almost no one that doesn't have at least two or three languages. Racial bias or insensitivity soon runs for the hills ... (interestingly enough) not because of any moral reason, but simply because it is bad business.

(This will undoubtadly get me flamed ... but big business - multinationals - on the whole genuinely embrace the world - we do business with, for instance, Dubai and Japan ... and anyone that manages to get hired into our group that show even the slightest sign of racial or cultural bias ... even if subtle ... against Arabs or Japanese ... is made to understand quite quickly that it is not tolerated, and if they do not seriously question themselves, they are strongly encouraged to depart. This is not, mind you, because we are afraid of any laws ... but rather because the company culture itself prefers to compose itself of people who love the variety of the world, not those who need to put effort into hiding bias, or pay lip service to tolerance. I remeber an incident last year ... in an executive restroom ... a guy that had just been hired from a good school in the Midwestern US, very bright, but apparently had a twisted notion of what corporate business was ... told a nasty racial joke to a group of us - including a very senior Managing Director - with a sort of "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" attitude. No one laughed. It was not funny. He kind of left in the middle of an uncomfortable silence ... at which point the MD turned to one of his assistants and quietly said "find out who that is - and make sure he's not working here tomorrow". The joke that had been told was an insult to a culture where we do business - and where a lot of us have friends.)

English is the international "language of business (again, sort of) but all of our statistics show that even if most people can understand English ... if one firm out of five selling a product or service in (for instance) a Spanish or Asian market (even in the US) markets in the language of the culture - it can be a powerful competative differentiator. (I noticed, by the way, during the last Presidential campaign, that while Gore paid lip service to multi-culturalism, the Bush campaign website translated a large majority of it's content into Spanish - and action that meant a lot more than piles of empty rhetoric).

I think there is a sort of cultural divide happening on earth right now ... but it doesn't split according to western or eastern, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd world, Christian, Muslim or Hindu - or any of the rest of commonly used lines - rather - it is between urban and rural. Almost all of the large cities I've been in ... from New York to Singapore, Hong Kong to London, Paris to Rio ... are now simply multicultural and multi-lingual. People have gone beyond arguing about it, and are instead involved in the day to day work of adjusting to it. It is the rural - be it rural Iowa or rural China - where it is common for one language, one religion, and one set of cultural traits to be considered "normal" ... and anything else to be considered "foreign".

Not really sure what to make of this ... just something i've noticed.

Oops, appear to be rambling. Point is - Iowa can pass any laws it wants ... but with this one they are spitting in the face of a very stiff wind - that will only get stronger as the years pass. Government agencies should learn from business ... i.e., not attempt to communicate in an accessible way because they have to, or are forced to, but because they want to. If there are enough spanish speakers to need a law enforcing English, that itself is a strong argument to make as much as possible available in Spanish.
posted by MidasMulligan at 8:37 PM on February 28, 2002


I think what gyc is trying to say, rodii, is that people "know" that America is an English-speaking country.

If you want to be able to communicate easily, you need to know English.

Certain accommodations are made in particular areas, such as in Southern California, where voting ballots are in Spanish and English.

But even though people choose to speak whichever language they're familiar with when possible, they still understand that English is the primary language of the country.

I see absolutely no reason for the government to step in and write a 5 million page document saying that same thing.
posted by cyniczny at 8:51 PM on February 28, 2002


The governor (Democrat) probably wants to run for President, and to do so he needs to move right a little (these issues usually seem to be brought up by conservatives), and get in the national news. This language law hubub accomplishes both.

That's the only explanation I can think of, because any other reason for this law is poorly flawed.
posted by insomnyuk at 9:07 PM on February 28, 2002


Fear is the little mindkiller...I will not fear....
posted by rushmc at 9:53 PM on February 28, 2002


Insomnyuk writes: The governor (Democrat) probably wants to run for President, and to do so he needs to move right a little (these issues usually seem to be brought up by conservatives), and get in the national news. This language law hubub accomplishes both.

Vilsack has presidential aspirations (what governor doesn't?) but I doubt any political analyst has Vilsack in their top five.

In addition, this bill is not being called for by Vilsack. The bill has to be passed by legislators first, obviously. This very same bill has been thrown in front of him several times, and each time it has been voted down. What is interesting is the argument the proponents use have been extensively watered-down from the bill's first versions several years back.

As for Vilsack's "conservative" leanings, about a year ago he gave an order granting rights in the government workplace to transgendered peoples. Local republicans had a field day with this, and tried to oust the man. If he's going to champion transgendered rights, why would he attack non-English speakers?

The purpose of the bill, in my opinion, is flawed insomuch that it only applies to governmental workers. Here in Iowa we may be less diverse ethnically than California or Florida, but we still employ large numbers of minorities who do not have full command of the language. Meatpacking, Tyson/IBP in particular, are the employers. These people, who work in unimaginable, often fatal conditions, are taken advantage of because they cannot read the large print, let alone the fine print. These same companies should foot the bill for non-English speakers to gain a foothold here.

So no, not troll as legislation. If the bill creates more funding for English-as-a-second-language programs, so be it.

Jonmc writes: makes me wonder if the state legislature has too much time on their hands.

If our national legislature is notorious for pushing aside important items so they have the time to designate national pancake day, how well do you expect Iowans to stack up?
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh at 10:01 PM on February 28, 2002


how well do you expect Iowans to stack up?

Hehe, good point, but I couldn't help but laugh at your clever pun. Plus your username makes it even punnier.
posted by insomnyuk at 10:30 PM on February 28, 2002


Well, I wish that was the case here in Miami. I might actually be able to go to a grocery store or gas station and be able to understand what the person working there is saying to me -- in my own country.
posted by eas98 at 6:51 AM on March 1, 2002


GREAT IDEA!

Preserving your cultural heritage is fine- do it on your own time / own dime- I do. My ancestors (migrated in the 30's) had to learn English the hard way- by assimilating...If you don't speak proper English you will not get my business, nor should you get the business of, nor the support of, the US federal and local gov't's. I will gladly pay for you via taxes to get English lessons- I'm not going to pay for all of the steps needed to cover for your inability to speak American English. This is not arrogance- this is America. Learn the language if you want to be a citizen (or leech of of American citizens) or get out. Period.

I don't undestand the argument against this type of legislation...why would you not want to reap the full benefits of America? Learning the language is step one...what logical person can argue this? Who in their right mind would want to be discriminated against for their language deficiency? Who would want to be taken advantage of for the same reason? Who is objecting this type of legislation? Isn't ther goal of our nation to be one from many? I don't get it...do some people want to further the rift between cultures in the US...have us end up like Canada where the French speakers wish to cecede (well, some do)...or- have states or areas in states where only certain types of people who speak certain languages live and work? Where's the American unity there? Argggghhhhh!
posted by ayukna at 6:51 AM on March 1, 2002


What does "official language" mean in the Iowa context? Anything?
posted by tranquileye at 8:03 AM on March 1, 2002


I think what gyc is trying to say, rodii, is that people "know" that America is an English-speaking country.

But people "know" all kinds of things that aren't true. Is this true? What makes it true? I think to say "it is understood" is a way of defining the problem to match the solution. The fact is, the US has never been a monolingual country, there are, and always have been, parts of it which are largely non-English speaking, and English has never had any official status here. If people want to change that last fact, fine (though I think it's a bad idea), but they can't argue for it by simply asserting that "everyone knows" we speak English here. Try that argument on the Navajo reservation or in parts of east LA.
posted by rodii at 8:21 AM on March 1, 2002


I don't undestand the argument against this type of legislation...why would you not want to reap the full benefits of America? Learning the language is step one...what logical person can argue this?

Ignoring the arguable notion that this is "step one" and that without the language, you are not reaping the full benefits of living here, how is this an argument for legislation? You might as well say, "We should legislate a national test on economics of the free market, civil liberties, and [whatever]." After all, an imperfect grasp of these sorts of things is certainly an impediment towards Perfect Citizenship. Why on earth do you even care if people aren't "reaping the full benefits of America"?

This is not arrogance- this is America.

This is not an argument--this is dogma. And, not incidentally, some great unintentional high comedy.

Learn the language if you want to be a citizen (or leech off of American citizens) or get out. Period.

So if I learn the language, it's okay to leech off of you? Cool!
posted by Skot at 8:43 AM on March 1, 2002


Prior to the first world war, government documents in Iowa could be in English or German.

What effect would this bill have today? All government documents and meetings are in English. Would this bill prevent the government from also translating its English documents into Spanish or another language?

If it's intended to outlaw bilingual ballots, I could live with that. After all, only citizens vote, and if you've gone through naturalization your grasp on English should be good enough to figure out a ballot.

What about judicial proceedings or police matters? If the accused does not speak English, would this bill mean he is not entitled to a translation of the proceedings?

The bill seems vague and overly-broad. If the legislature doesn't want to pay for translations of documents, they could pass a simple law for that. If they want English-only ballots or schooling, simpler, more focused laws would do it. If they want to prevent translations in courtrooms, they could pass a law to try to do that (although I expect that would be unconstitutional).
posted by rbgilbert at 11:33 AM on March 1, 2002


...it's understood that to live in this country, you should learn English and [I] don't see the harm in it being enforced with law.

It's understood that to live in this country, you should learn English, and I don't see the benefit in it being enforced with law.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:10 PM on March 1, 2002


I live in Des Moines, and my bus stop is actually right out in front of the capitol. A few weeks ago, there were a few protesters. I support making English the official language in Iowa. I don't know if I'm the only one who gets uncomfortable when people around me speak languages other than English.
posted by Kevin Sanders at 7:51 PM on March 1, 2002


Conexiones en espaƱol.
posted by bragadocchio at 8:44 PM on March 1, 2002


Kevin, you do realize that making English the official language won't stop anyone from speaking non-English languages around you, don't you?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:30 AM on March 2, 2002


Well, it should.

Anyways, Governor Vilsack signed the bill. (This is a temporary link; the page will be a different story tomorrow morning)
posted by Kevin Sanders at 10:45 AM on March 2, 2002


People shouldn't be allowed to speak any language other than English around you, Kevin? Are you paranoid that they're talking about you? Are you jealous that they have command of another tongue? Or are you just a xenophobe who can't stand anyone who isn't a white bread English speaking American like yourself?

Anyway, from the article:

Vilsack aides said he concluded a signature was needed because the measure doesn't do great harm and is more symbolic than real.

So now symbolic measures which don't do "great harm" must become law? If it's largely symbolic anyway and may do some harm, why on earth would he sign? There's got to be a quid pro quo somewhere. That kind of rationale just doesn't make any kind of sense.
posted by Dreama at 3:13 PM on March 2, 2002


I'm not saying that they absolutely shouldn't speak English around me. It makes me uncomfortable. Do you ever get uncomfortable? The base word is comfortable. The Un- prefix means not. Not+Comfortable. Got it? It's not pleasant when you're not comfortable.

I can speak some Spanish, but I choose not to. Why in the world would I be jealous because they can speak a language other than English?

These people don't frighten me. Not at all. They simply don't make me comfortable when they talk languages other than English. This is my opinion, and I'm entitled to it.
posted by Kevin Sanders at 4:15 PM on March 2, 2002


And I'm entitled to dissect that opinion for its root cause. You don't like it when people speak other languages around you for a reason and I'll stand behind my original claim that it's one of three things, jealousy, paranoia or xenophobia. Take your pick.
posted by Dreama at 10:23 AM on March 3, 2002


Given those choices, I choose none of them. If you can't quite figure it out, keep reading my earlier post until you can comprehend it. It's not that hard, really!
posted by Kevin Sanders at 11:43 AM on March 3, 2002


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