Newt Gingrich, long-time supporter of English as the official language of the United States, has deepened his English-only stake by coming out officially against bilingual education. Gingrich told the National Federation of Republican Women:
“We should replace bilingual education with emergence – with immersion – in English so that people learn the common language of the country and so they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.”
Calling Spanish a ghetto language, even though he stumbled over the English words as he said them, got a round of applause for the former Speaker of the House and prospective presidential candidate from his conservative base. But the rant that was universally understood to condemn Spanish without actually naming the language isn’t likely to get out the vote in the Latino community, which reacted to his speech with howls and jeers. Someone must have told Gingrich that Latinos vote too, because a few days later Gingrich, confessing surprise at how his words had been misinterpreted, sought to soften his insult by “clarifying” his position on Spanish, in halting Spanish, with a video that he posted on YouTube, which is apparently where he thinks Latinos get their news.
Gingrich didn’t actually apologize in his video. Instead, he claimed that his earlier statement associating immigrant languages with poverty and isolation may have been ill-phrased, but it was intended to support Latinos. He called Spanish both a beautiful and an important language. Plus he was learning Spanish himself, and he was encouraging executives at Gingrich Communications – presumably the company produced the video – to learn it too.
Alas, that would make the Gingrich communicators bilingual, which of course is one premise of bilingual education, not of immersion. On top of that, Gingrich aides were quick to undercut their boss’s praise of Spanish by assuring reporters that Spanish-speakers were dropping out of school because they weren’t learning English.
Gingrich’s Spanish actually leaves a lot to be desired. His video shows that he hasn’t mastered the sounds of his newly-adopted tongue, and he conveys no sense of comfort or fluency speaking it: while pretending to make eye contact with the camera, Gingrich reads the words woodenly from cue cards.
But this lack of competence is not surprising. A good accent often eludes adult learners, and mastering the intricacies of a new language takes time, not to mention a lot of trial and error. That’s something that Latinos who are learning English in record numbers, in bilingual programs, immersion programs, in night school, on the job, and on their own, would have been glad to tell the former Congressman from Georgia.
It’s unfortunate that Gingrich, who is convinced that immersion is the only way to learn English and make big bucks, while bilingual ed condemns students to a life of poverty and isolation, doesn’t bother to use the immersion method himself to acquire Spanish, a language that he deploys in the video for the obvious purpose of rebuilding the ties he’d just dramatically ruptured with an influential economic and voting bloc.
But even people whose English isn’t so good can see the irony that Gingrich advises English-learners to abandon bilingualism for immersion in a video which thoughtfully provides English subtitles, necessary both for Anglos like Gingrich whose Spanish isn’t up to the task, and for the increasing number of Latinos in the U.S. who are monolingual English speakers and can’t understand a Spanish YouTube video any better than they can understand the Spanish-language soap operas their grandparents watch on the great American TV network, Univision.
Gingrich courts Hispanic voters by pretending to speak their language, then tells them they can only vote for him in English. He goes through the motions of making nice to repair the damage that his ghettoizing of Spanish has done, but he speaks with forked tongue. Gingrich's policies supporting English-only in the halls of government and the hallways of the schools are guaranteed to ghettoize Latinos and increase school drop-out rates today, just as they ghettoized immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries and made school an obstacle for them, not an opportunity.