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Commentary: Do English-only pros and cons violate common sense?

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Navarrette

Ruben

SAN DIEGO -- There was one priceless scene in an episode of the PBS television show "American Family" where the patriarch -- played by Edward James Olmos -- argues that there shouldn't be things like bilingual education and that here in the United States, everyone should speak English. His friend wholeheartedly agrees. What makes the scene funny is the irony: Both men are making their arguments in Spanish (with English subtitles).

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The scene is a neat metaphor for the complicated views that many Hispanics have on the subject of language -- views that often confuse non-Hispanics and create tension between the groups.

For instance, there are plenty of Hispanics who oppose bilingual education because they think it hurts kids by making it more difficult to learn English. Yet at home, many Hispanics tend to switch effortlessly between Spanish and English and make an effort to ensure that their children maintain their command of Spanish.

Not that they always succeed. The Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based research institution, recently reported that while half of the adult children of Hispanic immigrants speak some Spanish at home, the percentage falls to a quarter or less for their children and grandchildren.

And despite the fact that many Hispanics are committed to learning English, many of them also flatly resent English-only laws or workplace rules prohibiting languages other than English.

That makes sense to me. Just because you think people should learn English doesn't necessarily mean that you think a government or private employer should coerce them into doing so through pressure, threats or intimidation. And for what purpose? Just because you think it is in a person's own self-interest to learn English doesn't mean that you need laws and regulations that seem intended to accommodate English speakers by forcing others to conform to the ways of the mainstream.

So don't be surprised if many Hispanics applaud the decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to sue the Salvation Army because its thrift store in Framingham, Mass., required employees to speak only English on the job. The requirement was posted and yet at least two Hispanic employees defiantly continued to speak Spanish while at work. The EEOC claimed that their firings violated the law. English-only proponents said that the EEOC's position violated common sense.

The critics are wrong. It's not that a business doesn't have the right to expect its employees to speak English. It does. It just doesn't have the right to prevent workers from speaking languages other than English. That's what this case is about, after all -- not a requirement that employees be able to speak English, but a rule that banned the speaking of other languages.

Of course, a business has the right to consider one's ability to speak English as a prerequisite for employment. But -- once the person is hired -- the employer shouldn't discriminate against some employees just to put other employees at ease.

For one thing, there's the First Amendment. Courts have ruled that people have the right to converse with one another in whatever language they please as long as it doesn't interfere with how they do their job.

Besides, the proponents of English-only laws sometimes claim that allowing employees to communicate in a language that others may not understand fosters division in the workplace. But what is really divisive are rules that pit one group against another and make language the dividing line.

And we don't need any more of that. The immigration debate is already splitting the country. Now language has become a proxy for the foreigners that frighten us.

Library books frighten some folks in Lewisburg, Tenn. -- library books in Spanish, to be precise. A while back, at the Marshall County Memorial Library, an employee named Nellie Rivera proposed a bilingual story time where children could have books read to them in Spanish. Some townspeople raised a fuss and demanded that all books in the library -- whether bought with public funds or donated by private individuals -- be in English.

The silver lining is that there are good folks in Lewisburg, and around the country, who scoff at such cultural censorship. As word of this bilingual backlash got around, outraged patrons began sending checks to the library that were specifically earmarked for buying Spanish-language books. Perhaps to tweak the opposition, some of the donations were in Rivera's name.

That's what I love about story time -- in whatever language. There's usually a happy ending.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is navarrette@wctrib.com.

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