September 02, 2004

Translation and free speech

A lawsuit was recently filed here in San Diego, by "[s]everal doctors and a group supporting English as the nation's official language" (the New York Times version of the AP story can be found here or here). The suit challenges "a Clinton-era executive order requiring federally funded hospitals, clinics and doctors to offer translation services for patients who speak limited English", and includes "claims that it is expensive and limits doctors' free-speech rights".

If someone can explain to me how having your federally subsidized medical advice and instructions translated limits your freedom of speech, I'd love to hear about it.

The suit was filed in San Diego because, I suppose, the lead plaintiff is a San Diego orthopaedic surgeon (whose bio can be found here). The "group supporting English as the nation's official language" is one I'd never heard of, ProEnglish ("English Language Advocates"), based in Arlington, VA. This same surgeon and English-only group "filed a similar lawsuit in Virginia in 2002 that was dismissed for, among several reasons, lack of standing and failure to prove the plaintiffs were harmed by the order."

I don't have much (else) to say about ProEnglish at the moment, but my suggestion to Dr. Colwell is simple: "stop taking federal money".

No really, I mean it. This is probably one of the worst times in recent history to be taking a stand for this particular side of an ethnically and culturally divisive issue like this, lowish-profile though it may seem to be. (Of course, ProEnglish probably thinks this is an ideal time to do this. I say ZEN-o-FEE-lee-(y)uh, they say ZEN-o-FO-bee-(y)uh.)

In case you think I'm overreacting, you should really visit the ProEnglish website. There's a very prominent link on their homepage saying DON'T SAY "ENGLISH ONLY!" READ WHY!. The first few paragraphs on this page sound halfway reasonable -- I had a flash of Geoff Pullum with his checkbook spreadeagled on the table before him -- but the last couple of paragraphs should give us pause (boldface in the original):

So, if all this is true what does the term "official English" mean? It means that a government has decided that in order for its actions, laws, and business to be considered authoritative, they must be communicated in the English language. It means that there can be no disagreement about which language is the controlling one for discerning the meaning that government intends. And it means that there must be a compelling public interest for government to use any language other than English.

It also has a symbolic meaning, which is very important. It sends a message to all those who want to participate as citizens in this great republic, that there are responsibilities as well as benefits for being here. And one of those responsibilities is learning to speak the language of our country--English. There is no reason why our expectations for non-English speaking immigrants today should be anything less than our expectations for the generations of immigrants that preceded them.

You have to wonder how this group defines things like "to be considered authoritative", "compelling public interest", and even "the English language" in the first paragraph. The second paragraph is the really disturbing one, though: the use of the phrases "a message to all those who ...", "the language of our country", and "our expectations for non-English speaking immigrants" strongly suggests that this group knows exactly not only who they are and who they represent, but also who their core audience is/will be. As a bilingual and bicultural child of proud immigrants to this country who both function perfectly in their adopted second language and culture, living in a state with a recently-elected (and very popular) English-only-supporting otherwise-moderate-seeming Republican governor with presidential aspirations, I'm frightened by this.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at September 2, 2004 01:55 PM