Businesses Outdo States in Multi-Lingual Outreach

By: - November 14, 2003 12:00 am

Under the golden dome of Iowa’s capitol in Des Moines, the official language is English: State agencies are not required to do business in any other language.

A few miles away, at the headquarters of the National Pork Board in Clive, marketers are looking for a payoff by promoting their products in Spanish: “El cerdo es bueno” — “pork is good” runs their main advertising slogan.

The contrast between the Iowa state government and the pork producers underscores two competing national trends: On the one hand, 27 states have passed laws making English their official language 23 of them within the past 20 years. On the other, businesses have recognized the growing immigrant population, and especially Hispanics, as a huge marketing opportunity.

“The Hispanic market represents the most bankable source of new growth for corporate America,” states the Web site of the San Jose Group, a Chicago-based marketing firm that specializes in reaching Hispanic consumers.

Hispanics comprise about 14 percent of the U.S. population, are the country’s fastest-growing minority and have a combined purchasing power of $562 billion, according to figures from the San Jose Group, which is helping the Pork Board with its marketing campaign.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) signed his state’s English-only law in March 2002. The issue was politically charged, said Vilsack spokeswoman Monica Fischer, and the bill was a product of the Republican-controlled state legislature.

“It wasn’t a piece of legislation [the governor was] excited to receive,” Fischer said. But by signing the “English Language Reaffirmation Act,” she added, Vilsack was hoping to neutralize the issue politically.

The law mandates that “all official documents, regulations, orders, transactions, proceedings, programs, meetings, publications, or actions taken or issued, which are conducted or regulated by, or on behalf of, or representing the state and all of its political subdivisions shall be in the English language,” according to the statute.

However, the law exempts information relating to trade or tourism, public health and “documents that protect the rights of victims of crimes or criminal defendants,” among other things.

In addition, there is a general loophole allowing state employees to communicate in another language if it is “necessary or desirable to do so.”

The exceptions in the law have rendered it nearly toothless, said Ben Stone, director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. “It was watered down to that point, because that’s the only way it would pass,” he said.

And the law has not significantly changed how the state does business, Fischer said. For instance the Iowa Finance Authority provides information in six different languages, Spanish included, she said.

Yet critics complain that even a toothless law has some symbolic value and fuels anti-immigrant sentiment. The real problem with English-only laws, said Jesse Villalobos, program and public policy director for the Iowa branch of the National Conference for Community and Justice, is that they provide little or no assistance for people to learn the language.

Proponents of official English laws agree. Rob Toonkel, a spokesman for U.S. English, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based group that lobbies for “official English” laws, says much more English instruction is necessary. But Toonkel argues that official English laws are necessary to provide consistency. “We’re translating some documents into two languages … some into six, some into 50 and some not at all,” he said.

But where some governments see a roadblock, businesses have found an opportunity. The pork board, for instance, has been investigating the Hispanic market since 2001, said Karen Boillot, the board’s director of retail marketing. As a group, she said, Hispanics eat at home more often than other consumers and are very “pork-friendly.” Still, the board’s new marketing is bilingual so that English-speaking consumers won’t be turned away.

It might also pay the states to communicate effectively with non-English speakers. A report to the Virginia General Assembly found that Asian and Hispanic immigrants pump nearly $12 billion annually into that state’s economy while using few state services. The study, by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, recommended that the state provide more services to those groups, including helping them become citizens and providing more English instruction.

Virginia’s official English law has not prevented most state agencies from translating information, said Linda Ford, chief legislative analyst for Virginia’s General Assembly — although immigrant leaders insist agencies are not adequately reaching out non-English speakers.

Anything that helps immigrants acclimate to the culture and government will help Virginia’s economy, Ford said.

George San Jose, founder and director of the marketing firm that is advising the pork board, goes further. Given the growth in minority populations, he said, government will soon have no choice but to communicate in other languages. Not only are businesses reaching out in other languages, he added, but so are major politicians and both political parties. “[Pres. George W. Bush] prides himself on speaking Spanish,” San Jose said. “The two-language phenomenon is inevitable.”

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