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Salt Lake City Weekly The Official Language

By Karen Denton

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  When you call Catholic Community Services, a female voice instructs what to do next in English; she is followed by speakers in Spanish, Vietnamese and Croatian. A billboard on 17th South and State, sponsored by a beer company, shows two young men looking pleasantly back at you. The caption reads, "Salud. Respecto y control." My bank's two downtown ATMs give users the choice of menus in English or Español. These examples demonstrate something that businesses and social services increasingly recognize: Even Utah is becoming multicultural and multilingual.

Now if we could just encourage Rep. Tammy Rowan (R-Orem) to accept this reality, then we could save time, effort and money during the next legislative session. Rep. Rowan is the sponsor of HB 387, which will make English the state's official language.

Full passage of the bill, which has already cleared the interim committee, would mean that all government agencies could only conduct business in English. Her rationale for the legislation is based partly on reducing the costs involved with producing materials in other languages, and partly because she believes this will unite us.

Perhaps it will, but prior to World War II the Japanese also thought learning English would integrate them into American society. When push came to shove after Pearl Harbor, the unity of language didn't mean a thing. This piece of legislation, however well-intentioned, is really just the covert side of the prejudice coin. It has the potential to divide us even more clearly into those with access to resources and those without.

Any adult in this country understands that English is the de facto official language and that some understanding of it is necessary to navigate everything from the bus system to paying taxes. In order to participate fully in this society, English is a must.

HB 387 fails to consider a number of points. First, this state has a long history of non-English speaking people who contributed to our development: Father Escalante explored Utah in the late 1700s; Greeks and Italians mined in Price and Helper; Basques tended sheep in the Uintas; Swedes built Swedetown and worked the railroads in Salt Lake City. Even without a common language, they wove some of our community fabric.

Second, this bill is out of sync with other segments of society. The state of Utah has spent considerable amounts of money and energy to lure foreign business into our fair territory. Do we tell them that we want their investments and expertise, but they shouldn't bother relocating any employees who can't speak English?

The LDS Church has encouraged many, if not most, of the non-English speaking people who have moved into this valley over the last few decades. Many, but not all, have gone on to learn English or are in the process. Do we suggest that they are not full members in good standing with either the religious or secular communities because they don't speak English?

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has proposed that HB 387 is possibly unconstitutional. Could be. It is definitely rude and ignorant, and it gives the impression that Utahns are the same way.

My hope is that Rep. Rowan quietly puts this one on the shelf because she has received so much opposition mail in Spanish, Russian, or better yet, Ute — the original official language before we English speakers immigrated here.


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