11.7.07

ISN'T THE CONSTITUTION TEST IN ENGLISH? Peggy Noonan suggests it's right that it is.
We speak English here. It's a great language, luckily, a rich one. It's how we do government and business. It's the language of the official life, the outer life, in America. As for the inner life of America, the language of the family, it would be just as odd to change longtime tradition there, which has always been: Anything goes. You speak what you came over speaking, and you learn the new language. Italian immigrants knew two languages, English and Italian. They enriched the first with the second--this was a great gift to all of us--and wound up with greater opportunities for personal communication to boot.
She goes on to note that to do otherwise is counterproductive.
But in a deeper sense, we should never consider devolving from one national language down into two, or three, because if we do we won't understand each other. And we're confused enough as it is.
A USA Today report on attempts to reasonably accommodate voters suggests such accommodation can turn unreasonable.

On Tuesday, [Massachusetts Secretary of State William] Galvin filed a challenge in federal court to a Justice Department agreement requiring that ballots be fully translated to protect the rights of Chinese-speaking
voters.

Galvin says Chinese — which uses characters, not letters; has sounds with several meanings; and is spoken in several dialects — will create ballot chaos.

Elections have to be precise," says Galvin, who wants ballot instructions in Chinese but candidate names in English. He says transliteration — using characters whose sounds approximate the way the names are spoken — can have "unintended negative inferences."

The problem that arises is in the translation of the characters. One can render Hillary! Rodham Clinton as "Upset Stomach" or "Like Prosperity" depending on one's intonation. Some people, however, prefer a more generous interpretation of "accommodation."

The federal government and some Asian-American activists disagree. Transliterating candidate names "is an effective way to allow voters to vote independently," unaccompanied by someone to translate, says Justice Department spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson.

Ann Har-Yee Wong of Boston's Elections Advisory Committee says asking Chinese-speaking voters to read a candidate's name in English is "akin to a Boston cabdriver navigating the streets in Beijing while trying to read street signs only in Chinese characters."

The analogy strikes me as false. A Peking cabbie has to learn the streets (it's not as easy as it sounds, and I hesitate to consider the dispatcher's reaction for a training map in Chinese for an applicant writing the map in Boston, let alone London.) The citizenship test is in English. Perhaps ballots also ought to be.

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