Rep. Tammy Rowan, R-Orem, has once again introduced legislation to designate English as our state's official language.
The bill, designated House Bill 189, states that "all official documents, transactions, proceedings, meetings or publications issued, conducted or regulated by, on behalf of or representing the state and its political subdivisions, shall be in English." It then goes on to list several exceptions to this rule.Rowan believes that forcing nearly all government communications to be in English will help non-English speakers to more quickly learn the language. Her reasoning appears to be that if non-English speakers are forced to use English or lose governmental services, they will try harder to learn it. However, she does not point to any empirical data to support this claim. I seriously doubt that Rowan has done any research into this area. I further doubt that she has ever set foot in an English as a second language (ESL) classroom. For if she had, she would have seen students attending ESL class between work and caring for families. She would have seen the dedication, emphasis and effort they put into learning English. And she would have learned that nearly every immigrant to this country knows that English is the key to much of the American Dream. Such a "sink-or-swim" policy is like teaching someone to ride a bicycle without letting him use training wheels.
HB189 is analogous to the shameful laws passed following the Civil War that placed literacy requirements and oppressive poll taxes as barriers to the right to vote. The effect of those laws was the denial of voting rights to many freed slaves, who, because they were never taught, could not read or write English. Similarly, HB189 will place many government services beyond the reach of those who do not understand English. Government should no more use linguistic skills as the benchmark for receiving government services today than it did during the dark days of the Reconstruction.
Rowan's comments following a Jan. 18 rally in opposition to HB189 reveal, at best, her naivete or, at worst, the racial underpinnings of the bill. She stated that "those people" who appeared at the rally were not "average Utahns." On a Sunday afternoon, she claimed, the "average Utahn is at home with their family or at church." She was apparently unaware that among the nearly 300 participants at the rally were several of her colleagues from the state Legislature, elected officials from municipal and county government, clergy from many different faiths and students and faculty from Salt Lake Community College, the University of Utah, Utah Valley State College and BYU.
If Rowan is serious in her desire to help non-English speakers become proficient in the language, she should sponsor legislation to enhance and expand our current ability to provide ESL instruction. She should encourage government to work with social service agencies to reach out to those who are linguistically isolated. Proficiency in English can lead to self-sufficiency in life. That is the goal ESL students seek to attain. HB189 will only serve to hinder those seeking to reach that goal.