Q&A on the English-Language Amendment
A political science student contacted me this past week with some questions about the English-Language Amendment to the Missouri Constitution. This amendment was approved by voters in 2008. Here are some of the questions with my answers, including my thoughts on why the amendment was a bad idea and why it passed anyway:
How would you respond to the argument that the existence of multiple spoken languages hinders business?
First, I’d like to point out that this amendment did not affect languages spoken in private businesses — and I’m glad it didn’t. It’s not the government’s place to tell businesses and their customers what languages to speak. Second, while multiple languages can potentially hamper business if large groups of market participants can’t communicate with each other, that’s not the case in Missouri today. The vast majority of Missourians speak English. And, historically, immigrants to the United States have been quick to learn English. It’s unusual to find second- or third-generation immigrants who speak their ancestors’ language as well as they speak English. Furthermore, gaining familiarity with other languages and cultures can actually give businesspeople an advantage in the global economy.
Is English-only legislation proposing a solution to a nonexistent problem? What would’ve happened if the initiative didn’t pass?
I do think the problem is nonexistent. The amendment declared an official language for official business in Missouri — such as legislative debates and government meetings. Such official matters were conducted in English before voters approved the amendment. Public officials would have continued to speak English in their official duties, even without an amendment to the Missouri Constitution.
How do you explain the overwhelming victory in favor of the Missouri initiative?
Not everyone shares my views on the role of government. When people see a ballot initiative that says public officials should speak English, it may seem like a great idea. After all, officials do speak English! It doesn’t tell them to do anything they wouldn’t otherwise do. Unless people have strong beliefs about the role of government and what kinds of problems the Constitution should address, they might not have any reason to oppose an English-language amendment. It’s kind of like asking voters to approve an amendment saying, “The sky should be blue.” There’s no reason to disagree, unless you don’t think amendments like that belong in the state’s Constitution.
Does the existence of state/local legislation indicate that not enough is being done about this issue on the federal level?
No. This issue is rightly left to the states.
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