Language differences figured prominently in rioting last spring in two largely Hispanic areas of the nation’s capital, Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan. The violence in early May began after a city police woman arrested a Hispanic man. The officer spoke English; the man spoke Spanish. The police officer said the man brandished a knife; she fired her revolver, wounding him. Two nights of rioting and looting followed, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

Obviously, the inability to speak English makes it difficult for immigrants to function in our society. Compounding the problem is the fact that many immigrants are duped by ambitious politicians into believing they can succeed in America without learning English. U.S. ENGLISH, with over a half million members, has been at the forefront of the Common Language Movement with its promotion of opportunities for non-English speakers to learn the language. Since January, U.S. ENGLISH has given $30,000 in grants to five community-based English programs in the Washington, D.C., area, four in Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan.

Opponents of the Common Language Movement recognize that Hispanics and other language minorities are learning English at a rapid rate. Yet their response to the integration of immigrants into our society is to encourage an active official bilingual movement. For example, though residents of Mount Pleasant have identified English proficiency as the most important key to their success, demands made by local ethnic politicians were for short-term solutions like more Spanish-speaking police officers and a 24-hour Spanish hotline to the mayor’s office. Bills supporting multilingualism in government have been introduced in at least 12 states and passed in three—Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico. Some Hispanic activists in our country have even demanded that government activities be conducted in Spanish. The Hispanic Issues Conference has suggested a full bilingual approach in public affairs, including Spanish-speaking poll workers at elections and translators at city government meetings.

Nor have these opponents limited their attacks to the legislative realm. Last March, after being incited by remarks from the podium at the California Democratic Party in Oakland, approximately 25 hostile demonstrators surrounded the U.S. ENGLISH booth, threw literature to the floor, pushed a table into a female staffer, and shouted such things as: “You are the intruder. Spanish should be the official language. You are a white Caucasian from Western Europe. California should be given back to Mexico.” U.S. ENGLISH filed a 15.2 million dollar lawsuit against the California Democratic Party for violation of U.S. ENGLISH’S civil rights, for breach of contract, and assault and battery. “Threats, intimidation and violence are not part of the American political process,” said Stanley Diamond, board chairman of U.S. ENGLISH.

Advocates of bilingualism and multilingualism are working in the courts, in the halls of government, and in the schools, pushing an agenda that attempts to chip away at the unity our country enjoys through our common language. In the courts, however, most of their efforts have failed. The Supreme Court ruled last June in Hernandez v. New York that a prosecutor does not necessarily violate the Constitution by removing people fluent in Spanish from a jury in a case against a Hispanic defendant. In other words, the Supreme Court refused to equate language with national origin, handing a major victory to the Common Language Movement, which considers the immutable characteristics of race, national origin, and sex distinct from learned traits like language. “The Supreme Court declined to make a blanket equation that said anytime you make a distinction on the basis of language, you are discriminating on the basis of national origin,” Diamond said. “The Court said each case must be examined individually to determine whether language was used as a pretext for a nation-origin discrimination.”

Leaders of the Common Language Movement believe that attempts to erode our common language will continue until English is established as our nation’s official language of government. Eighteen states have enacted laws designating English as their official language, and two measures are in Congress: the English Language

Amendment to the Constitution and the Language of Government Act. Most importantly, the majority of Americans, including Hispanics, support these proposals. A Gallup survey released in January showed that 78 percent of those polled favored English as our official language. Of families with a native language other than English, 74 percent were in favor. When asked if they felt making English the official language of government would discriminate against them, 95 percent said no; 88 percent of families with a native language other than English said no.

Mikhail Gorbachev, in his 1987 book Perestroika, paid tribute to the role a common language has played in the forming of our country: “though representatives from many ethnic groups came together in the United States, English became their common language. Apparently, this was a natural choice. One can imagine what would have happened if members of each nation moving to the United States had spoken only their own tongues and refused to learn English.” It’s an embarrassment to our country that so many of our political leaders refuse to acknowledge what even Mikhail Gorbachev knows to be true—that English is the cement that holds our ethnic mosaic together.