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One language: Bilingualism for the individual is fine, but not for a country. – S.I. Hayakawa

Finding qualified employees often is a challenge for South Dakota businesses. Retail has struggled for years to attract workers, partly because of lower wages. Now, some in the South Dakota construction industry are blaming a shortage of workers on what they describe as an unfair language barrier in driver’s license exams.

Spanish speaking employees can bring an interpreter to a licensing center now, but construction leaders in the Sioux Falls area want state law changed to allow the testing to be offered in Spanish to make it easier to hire immigrants.

The proposal raises some questions.

First, instead of saddling taxpayers with the expense of offering the tests in one or more languages  — other than English — why don’t the construction companies offer language classes for their present and potential employees?  This would have two obvious benefits. It would better prepare those employees not only for their jobs, but for functioning in society, where the language is still predominately English.

Second, have the companies examined their wage and benefits package to see if an adjustment would broaden the appeal of their jobs? Companies naturally want to hold down labor costs, but the flip side is that providing competitive pay attracts more applicants.

Third, offering driver’s license testing in other languages is a first step toward requiring bilingualism in other areas. Is that a path that South Dakota wants to take?

Then there is the safety issue. Highway signage in South Dakota still includes words in English, though the trend toward pictures has taken root here and in other states. However, understanding English is still an important safety consideration, and one that would be undermined by tests offered in a different language.

Supporters argue that the proposal is simply an outgrowth of the diversity focus we have seen in recent years. Perhaps. And I too celebrate the diverse cultures in our country. It has been essential to making our country great and, going forward, will continue to be an advantage to the U.S. in the global marketplace.

However, it is just as valuable, if not more so, to find ways to bring our diverse elements together for the common good. The focus should be on what unites us, not divides us.

One important way to do this is by a common language.  One language brings a country together. It transcends all social, economic and ethic barriers.

To undermine English as the nation’s language, as the construction industry’s proposal would do, is simply a bad idea.

Sept. 13, 2017