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Do You Speak English? Si! Oui! Da! Ja!


Los Angeles. -- The lead story on last week's release of new figures from the 1990 census was that one out of seven residents of the United States (over the age of 5) speaks a language other than English at home.

That represents 32 million people, of whom almost 9 million are resident in California. So the California ESL population (English as a Second Language) amounts to almost one in three people. Those numbers have jumped everywhere over the past decade, but again the increase is greater in California, where the Census Bureau says 239 different languages are spoken in the homes of those 9 million people.

But those numbers are misleading. The census results would seem to indicate that the U.S.A. is becoming diverse to the point of Balkanization -- at least linguistically. "Linguistic apartheid . . . a future disaster," said Christopher Doss in analyzing the data. He is a spokesman for U.S. English, a group promoting the official designation of the U.S. as an English-only country.

But if you read the fine print, the census says that better than three out of four of those ESL Americans do speak English -- "well" or "very well." So, with all the talk of America as the new Babel, the real foreign-speaking population of the United States is closer to one out of 30 than it is to one out of seven.

So what else is new? We are a nation of immigrants, one in which there were once hundreds of German-language newspapers. People came to America to become Americans, and with a bit of luck to become rich Americans. They still do. What the census data tell me is that immigrants are not stupid.

There are, I am sure, millions of older immigrants from Mexico or Russia or China who are not going to be able to learn to speak or read English. But I would also bet that their children or grandchildren will be as American as pizza or chow mein or Taco Bell.

"The gift of a common tongue is a priceless inheritance, and it may well someday become the foundation of a common citizenship," Winston Churchill once said. I agree with that. More important, looking at the census numbers, it seems that new immigrants also agree with one of the most gifted and chauvinistic of English speakers. Even here in Los Angeles, where there are vast areas in which Spanish can be more valuable than English, 74 percent of ESL Hispanics say they can speak English "well" or "very well."

Some of the English-speaking census data could be considered exaggeration because the census-takers accepted the word of respondents as to their linguistic abilities. But the three-out-of-four figure also represents ambitions. People want to speak English, not only around the world but here at home.

There is going to be continual agitation for bilingualism in the United States, particularly calls for an English-Spanish system. (More than one-half of the ESL population speaks Spanish at home.) James Lyons of the National Association for Bilingual Education says that "mainstreaming [immigrant] children is unfair, hypocritical and racist." Aurora Helton, a member of the Oklahoma Hispanic Advisory Committee, added: "Let's face it. are not going to be a totally English-speaking country anymore."

Yes, I think we are. We should be. The United States gains a great deal by having so many languages spoken inside our borders. But individuals who do not learn English will suffer for their entire lives. And the good news to me is that the immigrants seem to understand that better than some of their English-articulate spokesmen do.

I think these census figures show that we may be making too much of demands for bilingualism. Aside from some bilingual help in schools, this should not be a high government priority.

People will take care of themselves. They will learn English because they need it. If they want to speak Spanish or Armenian, they can do that at home or at the unemployment office.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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