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Oklahoma could become the latest state that proclaims English as its official language

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Okie accent notwithstanding, English will be the official language of Oklahoma if voters approve one state question in the Nov. 2 general election.

The passage of State Question 751 would amend the Oklahoma Constitution to require that official actions of the state " including the printing of driver's licenses and government documents " be done in English, unless federal law requires differently.

Should the proposal pass, no lawsuits could be brought against an Oklahoma government entity for failure to use English.

"If you ask people, 'What's the language of the United States?' people will overwhelmingly say it's English," said Daniel Patrick Head, director of communications for the group U.S. English Inc. "If you boil this down, our policy is that the government operates in a single language, and the resolution obviously benefits those who learn English."

U.S. English, a Washington-based citizens' action group, encourages state legislatures to pass official English legislation and works with lawmakers to write and promote the legislation.

The organization worked with Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, in writing House Joint Resolution 1042, upon which SQ 751 is based, Head said. HJR 1042 passed through the Legislature in spring 2009.

Neither Terrill nor HJR 1042 co-sponsor Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, returned requests for comment.

Terrill also worked with ProEnglish, a national nonprofit advocacy organization, to draft the resolution, Terrill's legislative assistant Martha L. Perry stated in an e-mail.

Thirty other states have passed some form of official English law.

Oklahomans largely favor the proposal. A total of 85 percent of Oklahomans favored designating English as the state's official language, while 11 percent opposed the idea, according to a SoonerPoll.com survey conducted in July.

Proponents of the measure say it makes economic sense for the state because it will eliminate the possibility of having to spend state money to translate official documents.

The exact amount of money Oklahoma would save on translation for state services is unclear because many budgets are not written in a way that explicitly states what is spent on translation services, Head said.

Although the official English proposal has been popular with both the public and the Legislature, some local minority groups think the proposal sends a message that goes beyond the language the state government uses.

"The message is anti-immigrant," said Patricia B. Fennell, president and CEO of Oklahoma City's Latino Community Development Agency. "It creates fear that immigrants are coming to this country to change it, but they want to come here and contribute, not change it."

The Latino Community Development Agency provides English classes, which is something not enough entities do, Fennell said.

Fennell is skeptical of the motives of the official English proposal because it is only restrictive against other languages but does not provide or call for more English learning opportunities, which make for a long process, she said.

"People who live in this country, if they're going to be successful, they have to learn English," she said. "I have never heard anyone say they did not want to learn English."

Head disagrees.

"This is a really pro-immigrant form of legislation," he said. "We can't learn from one another and we can't speak to each other unless we have a common bond in which to communicate."

Fennell thinks the proposal also discourages Americans from learning other languages. In an increasingly multilingual world, the ability to speak more languages will benefit Americans and make them more competitive economically, she said.

SQ 751 does make one exception: Native American languages could be used in official state dealings, the ballot question states.

Joe Watkins, director of Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said he thinks the singling out of Native American languages is a politically correct move since so many native languages are spoken in the state.

He does, however, see the positive aspects of creating an official language.

"In some ways, it's a cost-cutting measure," he said. "It streamlines government, and it makes it cheaper for the government to operate."

Watkins' only concern with the proposal is that it creates a perspective of "linguistic elitism."

"Especially with minorities, it creates this idea that English is the only good language," he said. "It creates misconceptions that people have to speak English in public or that Target doesn't have to print anything in Spanish or Walmart doesn't have to worry about its non-English speakers. It creates this idea that it's 'us versus them.'" "Hailey Branson-Potts

State Question 751

A "yes" vote on State Question 751 would amend the Oklahoma Constitution to require that official actions of the state " including the printing of driver's licenses and government documents " be done in English, unless federal law requires differently.

A "no" vote would not make any change to the Oklahoma Constitution.

Top Patricia B. Fennell
Bottom state Rep. Randy Terrill

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