John Silber

…was, among other things, the President of Boston University and the son of an immigrant.  Here’s what he had to say in April 1996 about a bilingual America, as reprinted last week in The Wall Street Journal [emphasis mine]:

English has never been declared our official language for the simple reason that, until recently, no one doubted that it already was.  The country was established by English speakers, its founding documents and laws are written in English and its legislatures transact their affairs in English.

This is a lesson my father learned soon after he came to this country from Germany in 1903 to work on the German pavilion at the St Louis World’s Fair.  When the fair closed he went to look for work.  Walking down the street, he saw a sign saying, “Undertaker.”  Supposing this to be a literal translation of the German word “unternehmer,” meaning “contractor,” he went inside and was surprised to find himself in a room full of coffins.  Embarrassed, he concluded that it was time to learn English.

Like all immigrants seeking naturalization, he had to demonstrate proficiency in English.  It would never have occurred to him or to any of the millions of other immigrants speaking many different languages to seek accommodations such as ballots in their native tongue.  He, like them, had freely chosen to live in a country where the language was English.

This is our historic tradition.  But in 1975 Congress amended the Voting Rights Act to require bilingual ballots.  Thus the lawmakers abandoned tradition, making a change of Constitutional consequence, amending in effect the very concept of US citizenship.  The naturalization statutes presume that English is the language of US citizens.  Why else is English required for naturalization? …

In the last weeks of the Soviet Union, I visited Moscow.  I was struck, reading my visa application, to see that the Soviet government wanted to know both my citizenship and my nationality.  I found this incomprehensible, for as an American, my citizenship and my nationality are one and the same.  America is a nation based on a set of ideals and allegiance to those ideals—it’s not based on ethnicity or national origin.

What he said.

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