June 07, 2007

English declared "national language" (again)

Last night the Senate voted to approve Sen. James Inhofe's amendment to the immigration reform bill declaring English the "national language." As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is much the same amendment that Inhofe introduced last year, though it now sports the brand-new title, "The S.I. Hayakawa National Language Amendment Act of 2007." Last year the Inhofe amendment passed by a vote of 62-35, and this time around the vote was 64-33 — a slightly better margin despite the fact that the Democrats now hold a slim majority in the Senate. Last time the amendment was supported by 10 Democrats, whereas this year 17 voted "yea." The swing was due to five Democratic newcomers voting for the amendment (Benjamin Cardin [MD], Amy Klobuchar [MN], Claire McCaskill [MO], Jon Tester [MT], and Jim Webb [VA]), plus three old-timers (Mary Landrieu [LA], Barbara Mikulski [MD], and Ron Wyden [OR]) who apparently decided to switch their position on the issue. (Tim Johnson [SD] voted in favor of last year's amendment but did not vote this year.)

As was the case last year, this is all likely a moot point, since according to the latest reports it now seems unlikely that the immigration bill to which the amendment is attached (S. 1348) will even make it to a full Senate vote. Still, it gives English-only groups something to crow about once again. The passage of last year's amendment got a lot more media attention because it was the first time the Senate had voted to make English the "national" language. This year the amendment's approval was noted as just one of many setbacks for the proponents of the immigration reform bill, culminating in the failure to win a key test vote earlier today. If the immigration bill does manage to get passed with the "national language" amendment intact, or if Inhofe finds success with his more ambitious bill to make English the "official language," then we will see a real shift in this country's language policy. Until then it's little more than political posturing to assuage voters who see American multilingualism as some sort of threat to the national fabric.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 7, 2007 01:02 PM