Se Habla Ingles: Prop. 63, a Cruel Joke, Could Cost Us Dearly

Posted near my desk at The Times is a gag sign that reads Se Habla Ingles (English Spoken Here). A Latino friend gave it to me because so many of the assignments that I have covered for this newspaper, from farm-labor strikes in the San Joaquin Valley to revolutions in Central America, have involved the use of Spanish.

I have come to treasure that silly sign more than ever in recent years as public concern has grown over the widespread use of Spanish and other foreign languages in this country, and the presumed threat that this trend represents to the dominance of English. That sign summarizes my feelings about the bilingual controversy: It's a joke.

I know that sounds flip, but I'm serious. With the growing dominance of English as the language of technology and finance all over the world, and the overwhelming influence that English-language media--from movies to music videos--have on young people in every culture, I find it amazing that anyone is worried about the language's future in this country.

By the same token, I can't understand why people get themselves so worked up about the fact that some people in cities like Los Angeles still use foreign languages, especially Spanish. That has always been the case with new immigrants. Wait a few years and their children will be listening to rock 'n' roll like their peers. Every time I hear someone carrying on about them not speaking English like the rest of us, I stifle a yawn. It's not only a joke, it's also a bore.

Which brings me to Proposition 63, the initiative on next November's state ballot to make English the "official" language of California. Many Latino and Asian-American activists are criticizing it as mean-spirited and anti-immigrant. They are right, and I admire their honorable stand. But they're wasting their time in fighting the measure. It is likely to be approved by a wide margin. A recent California poll found that 65% of the state's voters are aware of the initiative and support it by more than 3 to 1.

The state's balloting on Proposition 63 will be just the latest in a series of political moves across the country in which voters and public officials vent their resentment against people who don't speak English.

Probably no city in the nation has benefited more from an influx of new Spanish-speaking residents than Miami. The Cuban refugees who migrated to that city beginning in 1960 helped diversify the economy of a sleepy resort town and turned it into a major shopping and banking center for all of Latin America. Yet the first overt sign of the growing antipathy toward Spanish in this country occurred there in 1980 when Dade County voters rescinded a resolution that declared the county to be officially bilingual.

A few months later, voters in San Francisco, long regarded as the most tolerant city in California, approved a ballot proposition that urged the federal government to stop requiring the city to print voter-information material in languages other than English. The vote stemmed from a controversy over ballots printed in Cantonese, Mandarin and other languages used by elderly Chinese residents of the city--the very people whose visibility helped give San Francisco a reputation for cultural diversity.

When people in Miami and San Francisco vote in such a small-minded way, what hope is there?

Personally, my hope lies in the fact that Proposition 63 is the first of the English-only measures that would have more than a symbolic effect. It would amend the California Constitution to require the Legislature to establish and enforce English as the official language. And that would create some messy political and legal challenges.

The backers of Proposition 63 get lots of mileage out of the mistaken public perception that recent immigrants don't want to learn English or assimilate into U.S. society. In fact they do, which is why thousands of new arrivals to this country are crowding into English classes at adult schools all over the state. What happens to them if Proposition 63 passes? Will the state have to provide even more money for English classes? Or will the English-first forces try to do away with such classes?

Nobody can say for sure, because while some Proposition 63 supporters are sincere people who genuinely want to promote wider use of English, others are just ignorant nativists and racists who don't want government doing anything for anybody who's different. And it is sheer hypocrisy for Proposition 63 backers like former Sen. S. I. Hayakawa to pretend that this is not the case.

In fact, Proposition 63, like so many other well-intentioned but poorly drafted initiatives that show up on the California ballot, would create as many problems as it would solve. And those problems would cost state government time, trouble and money.

Like other English-first proposals, Proposition 63 is a cruel joke--not just on the immigrants whose labor is helping keep this state prosperous and growing, but also on the California taxpayers who will pay the consequences if it passes.

Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer.