When a state passes an official language law, some people shrug and say, Hey, no big deal, its just a symbol, like declaring the state bird or flower. For some states, having an official language is little more than a patriotic gesture. Its a law thats observed about as much as the state speed limit.
But sometimes people actually want their laws enforced. Supporters of one state’s official language statute are threatening to close down any school permitting the language of foreigners in its classrooms. They’re taking legal action against local schools for honoring the demands of a small but vocal language minority. According to the Los Angeles Times, hundreds of schools could actually be shut unless they change course and comply with the state’s official language policy.
The state is Karnataka, and the state’s official language is Kannada. You may not know Karnataka, but you know its capital, Bangalore. In fact, you’ve probably placed many phone calls to Bangalore, the city where lots of American companies have set up their toll-free call centers. Although 70% of the residents of Karnataka speak the official language, the state’s booming economy, which troubleshoots orders, delivers technical support, and designs software for anglophone clients around the world, depends on locals learning English, and on the 1,100 private schools that use English in their classrooms in support of the economy, but in violation of the law.
Half a world away, in Iowa, a state you’ve certainly heard of but one most of us rarely call, an English-only pressure group is suing the governor for violating that state’s official language law. Iowa’s law, passed in 2002, made English the official language for all government business. But a new lawsuit charges that the Iowa Secretary of State’s office offers voter registration forms in Spanish, Vietnamese, Laotian and Bosnian on its website, a violation as glaring as anything going on in Bangalore.
Karnataka and Iowa are hardly sister states. There are 64 million speakers of Kannada in the world, most of whom live in Karnataka. The 2000 U.S. Census has no figures for Kannada speakers in Iowa. The closest relevant figures show 1,185 speakers of Hindi, 473 speakers of Urdu, and 438 speakers of Gujarathi. In other words, less than one quarter of one percent of Iowans speak these south Asian languages, and fewer still speak Kannada.
Perhaps it’s only fair that Karnataka officials want to shut down schools and dump English in favor of the court-approved state language, and that supporters of official English in Iowa want to dump Bosnian and Vietnamese. We don't owe the Bosnians and the Vietnamese anything, the Iowa English-only crowd insists, and after all, civilized states need laws with teeth. Besides, official language laws aren’t meant to be a hardship on people who don't speak English. All they really say is, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Actually that should be, “Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more,” a saying that goes back to the 4th century. But if you talk like that in Iowa, you’ll be slapped with a lawsuit. Because in 21st-century Iowa they freely translate those fighting words usually attributed to St. Ambrose as, “Speak English or go back where you came from.”