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  • Presidential candidates: speaking Spanish now, but will they forget it after the test?

    One of the remarkable things about the long run-up to the 2008 presidential election is the number of candidates who are speaking Spanish in public.

    Mitt Romney tells voters in Miami, “Venceramos.” John McCain says “Gracias” on CNN. Michael Bloomberg, Chris Dodd (a fluent Spanish speaker), Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson (who actually is half Mexican) are turning on their Spanish whenever they can find an open mike. Dennis Kucinich showed his minimal Spanish in a 2003 debate. And while John Edwards admitted on the Spanish cable network Univisíon in 2004 that his Spanish is “not good,” that interview was broadcast in Spanish.

    Newt Gingrich, who condemns bilingual education because English can only be learned through total immersion, announced on YouTube in broken Spanish that he’s taking Spanish lessons twice a week. Apparently he’s too busy holding down a full-time job as a possible presidential candidate to try the immersion method, though he recommends it for our children.

    And even George Bush, who insisted that anyone living in the United States must learn to sing the Star-Spangled Banner in English, sang patriotic songs in Spanish during his presidential campaigns.

    At least two of the current candidates – Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson – have already accepted Univisíon’s invitation to participate in a presidential debate entirely in Spanish. Hillary Clinton, who openly courts the Hispanic vote and Tom Tancredo, who does not, have already declined, ostensibly for different reasons.

    But just because the other candidates openly speak Spanish doesn’t mean they think that other Americans should speak it too. Newt Gingrich seems to think it’s the language of the ghetto. Some of the candidates are calling for tighter border control, in Spanish. Some want English on everybody’s lips, and they say so in Spanish. Because Spanish, for them, is a means to an end: election. Like a student after the final exam, those who didn’t really speak Spanish to begin with will forget their Spanish when the election is over.

    Most Americans, whether they are politicians or ordinary people, remain resolutely monolingual. While they’re trying out their Spanish on Latino voters, some of the candidates are also voting to make English America’s national language. That seems to sit well with the electorate. 29 states have already picked English as their official language, others are considering it, and more than 50 towns and municipalities and countless restaurants, insurance offices, and other small businesses are following suit. 

    Geno's steaks in Philadelphia is an English-only restaurant 

    [Joe Vento, owner of Philadelphia’s Geno’s Steaks, home of the famous Philly cheese steak, has made his restaurant English-only. The sign reads, “This Is America. When ordering ‘Speak English.’ ”]

    The legislation isn’t necessary, because immigrants typically learn English. But speaking English isn’t the real issue. Official language laws pop up in American history when immigration is perceived to be a problem. They’re politer than just saying “Go away,” but that is what they mean.

    Anti-immigration and English-only are closely allied  

    [This photo from an anti-immigration web site shows the link between language laws and nativism]

    So it’s no surprise that in this year of candidates-speaking-Spanish, Congress is also voting to build fences along the Mexican border, and the English-only fever is peaking. Politicians know they have to maximize their chances for success by appealing to as many voters as they can. And it’s not just Spanish voters and anti-immigrationists that they’re courting with their forked tongues. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been accused of trying to sound more black when they address African American voters.

    It would be wonderful if this little taste of linguistic pluralism would last beyond the presidential campaign. After all, we all speak multiple varieties of our own language, and foreign languages are a handy thing to have in a shrinking world (even our politicians remind us of this fact).

    But with immigrants switching to English, and foreign languages not a popular option for most students, my guess is that after the election, the candidates will stop joking about being from a border state like Connecticut or Ohio and go back to speaking English, just like the other 94% of the electorate.

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