Monday, September 18, 2006

Officially English

There's a lot of rhetoric about Metro Nashville Councilman Eric Crafton's bill making English the official language of Metro Government. A lot of rhetoric and not once have I seen anyone print a copy of the legislation so we know exactly what we're talking about. One of my first rules is to go to the source not some warmed over biased treatment. Well here is the bill. Tuesday evening it will have its first of three required readings. Note that the TCA quoted should be 4-1-404 not 104:


An Ordinance amending Chapter 1.04 of the Metropolitan Code of Laws declaring English to be the official language of the Metropolitan Government, and to require that all government communications, publications and telephone answering systems be in English only.

WHEREAS, Tennessee Code Annotated § 4-1-104 [should be 4-1-404] establishes English as the official language of the State of Tennessee, and requires all communications and publications produced by governmental entities to be in English; and

WHEREAS, the Council now desires to designate English as the official language of the Metropolitan Government for purposes of government publications and communications.


Section 1. Chapter 1.04 of the Metropolitan Code of Laws is hereby amended by adding the following new section 1.04.070:

"1.04.070. English the official language of the metropolitan government.

A. English is hereby established as the official language of the metropolitan government.
B. All communications, publications, and telephone answering systems of metropolitan government boards, commissions, departments and agencies shall be in English only."

Section 2. This Ordinance shall take effect from and after its passage, the welfare of The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County requiring it.

Sponsored by: Eric Crafton, Michael Craddock

and here's the actual Tennessee Code, enacted in 1984, which is the precedent for this Metro bill:

4-1-404 English - Offical and legal language.

English is hereby established as the official and legal language of Tennessee. All communications and publications, including ballots, produced by governmental entities in Tennessee shall be in English, and instruction in the public schools and colleges of Tennessee shall be conducted in English unless the nature of the course would require otherwise.

Further the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services "Guide to Naturalization" states on page 26 (page 30 of this pdf):

According to the law, applicants must demonstrate "an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write and speak...simple words and ordinary usage in the English language"

I understand that there is tension between our society's heart to extend hospitality and essential services in emergency situations and the practicals of how much and at what cost? The more we try and accommodate various languages the more expensive our government gets and the less new immigrants will assimilate. And certainly any lawyer can tell you that a poor translation can have legal consequences over and above any mishandling of the task. We can go back to the Treaty of Tripoli for an example of a bad translation that is still being thrown at us 209 years later.

I believe that what may actually be at the heart of CM Crafton's attempt to bring Metro Nashville in line with the state code is encouraging foreign born residents to learn English for their own greater well being. CM Crafton cites his own wife's experience. My experience comes from helping two Ukrainian immigrants. Surely many of us remember the foreign born mother in an outlying county who was charged with being unable to properly care for her children because she lacked good English skills. If what we lack is English language classess--we're a caring enough community to provide those. That would enable these new residents so much more freedom than the soft but still crippling shackles of letting them remain ignorant of how to really interact in this society. If they remain dependent upon translators they will be taken advantage of and that's an injustice that we should not encourage.

One of the very foundational things that unites any country is language. The ability of language to unify a people goes all the way back to the Tower of Babel. No one is suggesting that anyone give up their heritage. No one is suggesting that emergency workers can only speak to their charges in English. I believe what is being said is we've got to set boundaries for the greater good. The State of Tennessee already has this boundary. Metro should follow suit.


Donna Locke said...

Well said, Kay. So many seem to forget or don't know the rules for immigration to this country. Immigrants are supposed to be learning English. Our traditional assimilation model has been defeated -- the loss of English as our common language is the canary in the mine -- because we are taking in more immigrants annually than we ever did before the changes in our immigration policy a few decades ago.

John Lamb said...

I can speak from personal experience. When my wife came to the U.S. from Chile, she did not know English, and she did not know how to drive. She had used public transportation all her life. When she got here, she learned how to drive faster than she learned English, as I imagine would be true for just about anyone. As she was still learning English but before she was proficient enough to feel comfortable taking a written test in English, she took the written portion of the Tennessee drivers test in Spanish and passed. After passing the road test, she got her license. Her assimilation and integration into Nashville went much faster because she was able to get out of the house by herself. Her English improved by working and by going to English classes, and she drove herself to both. Her English is fine now, and I appreciate the hospitality of the City of Nashville in acknowledging that driving is part of integrating and not putting her license on hold until she was able to pass a written English test.