Missouri Doesn’t Need an English-Language Amendment
Although official state business is not always understandable to ordinary Missourians, the reason probably has more to do with bureaucratic rules and jargon than with any language barrier. Nevertheless, the possibility that official state business will someday be conducted in a foreign language concerns legislators so much that they’re trying to prevent it. In November 2008, Missouri voters will decide whether to tack an English-language amendment onto the state Constitution.
The proposed amendment is a bad idea. We needn’t work to prevent this hypothetical problem, which will almost certainly never materialize on its own. Missourians will continue to speak English long into the future, both in official business and in their daily lives.
It’s hard to predict how culture and language will evolve. Based on the history of immigration into Missouri, one might guess that Missouri’s common language today would be French or German. But as we all learned in elementary school, immigrants in the past assimilated and learned English. The great-grandchildren of Germans communicate easily with the great-grandchildren of immigrants from France or Ireland. Even though immigrants’ descendants often hold on to cultural traditions and ethnic foods, this doesn’t cause a problem for society. In fact, most of us celebrate diversity.
Some argue that today’s immigrants are different. They claim that immigrants no longer want to assimilate and become Americans. In the past, immigrants left everything behind, traveled for weeks or even months, and then had to start new lives. Now, the argument goes, family and friends back home are just a phone call away, so immigrants keep in touch and retain their identities.
The evidence paints a very different picture: Immigrants continue to join American culture despite the ease with which they can speak with or visit people they left behind. Even if Missouri receives a large influx of immigrants who don’t speak English, we can be confident that the immigrants’ children will learn our language. Second- and third-generation immigrants generally assimilate and adopt the language of the majority. For example, a study of immigrants in California found that 96 percent of third-generation Mexican-Americans prefer to speak English at home. Missouri’s level of immigration is nowhere near California’s, so we would expect third-generation immigrants here to speak English at even higher rates. And a Pew Hispanic Center survey found that 92 percent of Hispanics consider “the goal of teaching English to the children of immigrant families” to be very important, higher than the percentages of whites or blacks who valued teaching English to immigrants so highly.
Immigrants still learn English because this country offers so many opportunities for English-speakers. It just wouldn’t be worth it to forego learning English in the hope that someday city council meetings will be held in another language. Immigrants want well-paying jobs and they want their kids to get an education; English is a prerequisite for participating in American society. True, it’s easier than it once was to retain one’s identity, but that means that it’s also less necessary for immigrants to stay in tight-knit communities all the time. And there are many resources for people trying to learn English, such as courses at public schools and libraries—a luxury that 19th-century immigrants didn’t have.
Future immigrants will learn to speak English, whether or not we pass an amendment about it. But the more we add amendments that don’t matter, the less seriously our state’s Constitution will be regarded. And legislating about remote possibilities draws attention away from immediate quandaries, stirring up fear over imaginary threats. This proposed amendment won’t solve any of Missouri’s problems; we should focus instead on policies that will make a difference.
Sarah Brodsky is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute.