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Leydi Nieves, a Mexican, talked about her daughter’s doll at Neighborhood House in St. Paul. Students were asked to bring in something that represents their homelands to share with the class.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Bernardina Lopez, a Peruvian, studies English at Neighborhood House.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

English-only debate revs up again

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH
  • Star Tribune
  • February 25, 2011 - 11:47 PM

At a class for immigrants learning English in St. Paul, this week's lesson was all about Minnesota symbols.

The official state bird: the loon.

The state flower: the lady slipper.

Minnesota's official language: to be determined.

Efforts to declare English the official language of Minnesota are getting the most serious attention in years at the State Capitol as part of a movement sweeping the country. If bills now working through the Minnesota House and Senate pass, such a law would stop most government information from being translated into different languages.

Would it bring people together under a common language, as supporters say? Or would it do more to divide us, as opponents argue?

"It is definitely immersion on a much bigger level," said James Bernard, who teaches English as a second language to immigrants from around the world through Neighborhood House in St. Paul.

If the law passes, government information would no longer be translated, with exceptions for health and public safety concerns, among others.

Voter's instructions and ballots, for example, would be printed only in English. The written tests for those applying for driver's licenses would be taken in one language, instead of six.

Already, 31 other states have some form of English-only law on the books. Oklahoma became the most recent one, after voters endorsed a proposal last November to make English the state language. Since January, legislators in Texas, Wisconsin and Washington state have introduced similar bills.

Last summer, Lino Lakes became the first city in the state to ban the use of city money to translate city documents or public meetings into another language.

'We're one state'

The chief author of the Minnesota House bill, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said his bill accomplishes three things: 1) It would cut costs of translating and printing materials in multiple languages at a time when the state is facing a $6.2 billion deficit. 2) It would help new immigrants learn English. 3) It would unite people.

"I look it as a unifying law," he said. "We're one state. We're one country. This is America. This is Minnesota. We welcome all kinds of people to come here, legally, of course. And when they do, we welcome them here and welcome them to learn the language, to join the culture, to join the American dream and to be successful."

Learning English is key to success here, say those who work with immigrants. But they say the law could actually make it harder for non-English speakers to become self-sufficient by making it more difficult for them to access services.

"The difference would be people in the real world aren't always trained to communicate to different audiences effectively," said Bernard, the English language teacher. "That's the thing our students run up against in the real world."

At Neighborhood House, a non-profit agency that has helped resettle new immigrants and refugees for more than 100 years, daily English classes are filled with immigrants eager to learn.

Kara Schommer, who oversees the English classes there, sees the bill as a departure from Minnesota's long tradition of tolerance for other languages and cultures.

"It seems just unwelcoming," Schommer said. "You can tell by our demographics and our increasing refugee and immigrant population that we have been a welcoming community. I think we'd definitely lose something if that no longer was something we celebrated."

Translations go way back

Translations are not new. In the 1920s, Minnesota printed voting instructions in English, Swedish, French, Polish, Finnish, Norwegian, Russian, Bohemian and German.

Today, voting instructions are translated into Hmong, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali, reflecting Minnesota's largest immigrant groups now.

Studies show that immigrants who arrive in the United States when they are young are much more likely to pick up English, said Katherine Fennelly, an immigration expert from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Time also plays a huge role in getting people fluent. A 2007 report by the Pew Foundation found that the percentage of Latinos who spoke English very well rose from 23 percent for the first generation to 88 percent for their adult children speaking English very well, and to 94 percent for their children's children.

English 101

Little by little, Leydi Nieves is picking up enough English words to know that there's a debate going on.

In 2008, she left her native Mexico and came to Minnesota to join her husband.

She is one of 15 adults enrolled in an advanced English language class at Neighborhood House.

"The part that is hard for me is when I have to speak. It's hard for me to make questions," Nieves said.

Of the proposed English-only law, she said: "That has a good part and a bad part. We want to succeed in English, it's good for us. But what if we don't understand? When that law is done, we [will] have too much trouble with our children and our life because we're not prepared to speak fluent English."

Last week, she and her classmates in the English language class took turns presenting objects representing their native countries.

Nieves presented a doll dressed in black velvet, with a sombrero and long plaited hair.

Touching the doll's plaits, she searched her mind for the correct word.

"Ribbons," suggested one of her classmates.

She shook her head and touched her own hair.

"Braids!" offered another student.

She nodded. "Yes, braids!"

Later, the class practiced reading aloud from a book on fun facts about Minnesota.

State motto, one student read, pausing at the unfamiliar words that followed.

"L'Etoile du Nord," a classroom volunteer explained. "It's French for 'The Star of the North.' "

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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