Opinion

Official language policy needed to unite Washington residents | GUEST OP

By Mauro E. Mujica
For the Reporter

When it comes to cultivating a welcoming environment for immigrants, policymakers in Washington are lacking.

Yes, the Evergreen State is home to a diverse group of residents. Washingtonians speak 167 different languages, according to the United States Census Bureau, and nearly 60 languages are spoken by more than 1,000 residents. But as one of just 19 states without an official language policy, Washington's immigrants are met with little assistance to help them assimilate.

More than 8 percent of Washington residents are considered limited English proficient, meaning they would struggle to carry on more than a basic conversation in English.

Currently, in an effort to include these residents, the state offers driver's license examinations in six languages other than English. Countless state documents and services are offered in foreign languages for the same reason. Unfortunately, as well intentioned as these translations may seem, they are misguided when it comes to creating a unified environment for all residents.

As an immigrant myself, I know that to succeed in the United States, English proficiency is key. As someone who came to the United States before the government provided the crutch of native language translations, I also know that delaying English acquisition does immigrants no favors.

Without an official language policy, immigrants receive the message that English is optional, not essential. Without English proficiency, immigrants are often held back from better, higher paying jobs, health insurance and more. They are likely to encounter language barriers on a daily basis at the grocery store, the doctor's office or a child's school.

Conversely, if Washington's state government agencies offered services in English, rather than an abundance of foreign languages, immigrants would face an added incentive to learn English sooner. With the money saved on translations, the state government could even designate funding to create additional English language learning classes or invest in education, infrastructure or other areas in need.

In other words, declaring English the official language of Washington is a win-win situation for all parties involved. With an Official English policy, residents are still free to speak the language of their choosing, but will also benefit from an added incentive to learn English. That English proficiency can lead to a 30 percent increase in income, contributing to a better life for the immigrant population and an improved economic outlook for the state.

Best of all, declaring English the official language is a measure that is widely supported by citizens of all backgrounds. A Rasmussen Reports poll conducted on Aug. 9-10 found that 83 percent of Americans support the policy, and an even more overwhelming 94 percent believe English proficiency is important to succeed in the United States.

While policymakers may believe they are benefiting Washington's immigrant population by providing native language translations, reality could not be farther from the truth. Diversity is an asset, and we should respect the linguistic and cultural differences among residents of the United States. But without a common factor to unite us in our diversity, we remain divided.

I encourage the Washington State Legislature to take action this year and send a message to all residents that we are united through a common, shared language, English.

Mauro E. Mujica is the chairman of U.S. English, Inc., one of the nation's oldest and largest nonpartisan citizens' action groups dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States. Founded in 1983 by the late Sen. S.I. Hayakawa of California, U.S. English, Inc. (www.usenglish.org) has more than 1.8 million members.

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