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English Only, Por Favor : HOLD YOUR TONGUE: Bilingualism and the Politics of English Only, By James Crawford (Addison-Wesley: $24.95; 320 pp.)

August 23, 1992|Frank del Olmo | Del Olmo is Deputy Editorial Page Editor of the Times

In the aftermath of last April's civil unrest, it goes without saying that Los Angeles' emergence as a world-class city of many peoples and cultures has not come about without pain. But even before this city exploded in the nation's first multi-ethnic riots, a sensitive observer could feel the stress building. Most often the tensions were along racial or class lines, but you would be surprised at how often language was involved.

Recall for a moment the controversy that sprang up in Huntington Park in 1984, when Municipal Court judges in that heavily Latino suburb ordered court clerks to stop speaking Spanish to each other during work hours. The lawsuit that resulted traveled all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled the case moot only because the plaintiff had changed jobs.

Or the 1985 controversies in Monterey Park over the proliferation of business signs in Chinese and in the Ventura County community of Fillmore over bilingual education for schoolchildren. In both instances, local officials--mostly Anglos--reacted by declaring English the official language of their cities, as if that step alone would somehow counteract larger demographic and economic changes. The changes continued, of course, and as they did, the differences between the ethnic groups involved only grew deeper.

The culmination of the language controversies came in 1986, when California voters approved Proposition 63. That amendment to the state Constitution declared English to be the state's official language. Since then Prop. 63 has been ignored more than enforced, like similar measures in Arizona and other states. And, with California's Latino and Asian populations growing rapidly both in numbers and political sophistication, don't expect it to be aggressively enforced anytime soon.

Still, Prop. 63 remains on the books to rankle those who feel it was aimed against them--linguistic minorities, especially those, like Fillmore's Chicanos and Monterey Park's Asian-Americans, who are emerging to claim political power and influence in communities that were once largely all white. Sheer demographic momentum makes the changes inevitable, but battles over language continue to exacerbate the differences. Clearly, we need to find more constructive ways of resolving the problems that are part and parcel of any multiethnic community.

In a sure-to-be controversial new book, "Hold Your Tongue," journalist James Crawford makes a persuasive case that these campaigns to declare English the nation's official language are not always the Populist, grass-roots efforts they portray themselves to be. Many were methodically exploited, and sometimes even planned from afar, by U.S. English, a political lobbying group based in Washington D.C. and funded by an odd variety of political activists and little-known foundations whose long-term goals range from population control to blatant white supremacy.

Crawford's book offers even those who have followed U.S. English and its many English Only campaigns an intriguing and well-researched look inside an activist group whose aims seem utterly benign. Who, in their right mind, could object to all U.S. residents learning English? At various times U.S. English's seemingly laudable goals have attracted endorsement from public figures like Walter Cronkite, Saul Bellow, Alistair Cooke and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yet in pursuing that goal, U.S. English has contributed to bitterly divisive political campaigns in places as diverse as Dade County, Florida (where despite the contributions Cuban-Americans have made to Miami's economy, Official English is now the law) and Lowell, Massachusetts (home of the largest Cambodian refugee community outside California, where an English Only controversy contributed to ethnic violence that claimed the life of a refugee boy).

If Crawford's only aim was to trash U.S. English, he really didn't have to write a book to do it. The organization has done a pretty good job of undermining its own appeal ever since some of its founders' rather quirky (to be charitable) views on topics like race and eugenics began to become public knowledge in the late 1980s. Cronkite, among others, disassociated himself from U.S. English at that time. Instead, the real value of "Hold Your Tongue" lies in the breadth and solid research Crawford brings to the highly charged, but little understood, topic of language in the United States.

In tracing the history of language in America, Crawford's most fascinating chapters remind us of how admirably libertarian we have been about permitting the use of languages other than English, not just in private discourse but even in the conduct of official government business. The first bilingual education programs and government services, for example, were for German-speaking immigrants in Pennsylvania during Colonial times.

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