English Language Bill Advances In House

Oklahoma voters could soon decide if English will be the official language of state government in Oklahoma.

Senate Bill 163, by Reps. Randy Terrill and George Faught, was amended Wednesday to put the English question to a statewide vote next November.

The proposed constitutional amendment would make English the official language of state government in Oklahoma.

"This has been a long time coming," said Terrill, R-Moore. "We need to focus on what unites us, not what divides us. English is a common bond that we can all agree upon."

"The man on the street wants this," said Faught, R-Muskogee. "It’s a no-brainer. In this country, we have a common currency, common law, and a common language that everyone needs to learn."

Senate Bill 163 was amended in the House General Government and Transportation Committee to include the "official English" proposal. The legislation passed out of the committee on Wednesday and now proceeds to the floor of the House.

Under the provisions of the bill, private individuals and businesses would still be allowed to use whatever language they choose. The bill also contains exemptions for the languages of Oklahoma’s 39 federally recognized Native American tribes and allows the use of both Braille and sign language in government services. The legislation also contains a number of other specific, narrowly tailored exceptions for things like public health and safety, as well as trade, commerce and tourism.

Terrill and Faught said there are three compelling reasons to make English the official language of Oklahoma. First, the bill will prevent the state from being compelled to provide taxpayer-subsidized services in any language other than English. "There is currently no legal basis for denying someone’s request that the state provide services in another language, creating significant potential problems for the state," Terrill said. For example, he noted a recent Associated Press story indicating the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety has been threatened with a lawsuit because the state does not provide the written portion of a driver’s license test in Farsi.

Second, the two lawmakers said making English the official language "avoids all of the cost, burden and conflict" associated with bilingualism and multilingualism.

"Bilingualism and multilingualism are inherently divisive," Terrill said. "Just look at the Canadian province of Quebec for a case study. In Quebec, you have a cultural and linguistic minority that routinely threatens to separate from the rest of the nation."

There are approximately 120 separate languages spoken in Oklahoma, Terrill said, and only 21 of those languages are spoken by more than 1,000 individuals. Research indicates more than 100,000 people in Oklahoma (age 5 and up) have limited English proficiency.

"If we don’t make English the official language, the state could be forced to hire translators fluent in all 120 languages and insufficient numbers to staff all state offices," Faught said. "That would be an enormous financial burden that provides minimal benefit. And every dime spent on translators would be a dime taken away from our classrooms, law enforcement or highway projects."

Most importantly, the lawmakers said making English the official language of state government would promote assimilation for all immigrants.

"The government should encourage immigrants to assimilate and Americanize – and becoming fluent in English in a cornerstone of that process," Faught said.

Terrill noted that English proficiency provides enormous financial benefits for immigrants. Individuals working full time who cannot speak English earn an average $15,196 per year. Those who work full time who do not speak English in their home but possess an intermediate level of English proficiency earn an average $26,004 per year. Full-time workers who speak another language at home but are proficient in English earn an average $30,691 per year.

That may be why a national poll conducted by Zogby International found that 65 percent of Hispanics support making English the official language. That poll found support was even higher among first- and second-generation Americans.

If approved by voters, the official English law would have three main impacts, the legislators said.

First, there would no longer be any bilingual or multilingual driver’s license tests. Second, when citizens call a state agency, they will no longer be greeted by a "press 1 for English" prompt. Finally, there would no longer be any official state forms or signage in any language but English, unless covered by one of the specifically enumerated exceptions previously noted.

On February 7, they said, the Tulsa World reported that its poll found 88 percent of Oklahomans surveyed believe English should be made the state’s official language. A separate Wilson Research Strategy poll showed 82 percent of all Oklahomans support making English the official language.

About the Author:
Mike McCarville has covered Oklahoma politics and government since he became State Capitol Correspondent for The Tulsa Tribune in 1966. Since, he has been a governor’s press secretary, investigative reporter, television station news executive, radio station program director and talk show host, and political consultant. In 1980, he founded The McCarville Report and it is the nation’s longest-running state political publication. In its online version, it has been called "The best political blog" by Dr. Keith Gaddie, pollster and pundit and "Oklahoma’s venerable McCarville Report" by The Arkansas Times.  McCarville, also a real estate investor and commentator for the National Rifle Association on NRANews.com and Sirius Satellite Radio, is a regular contributor to Tulsa Today.