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  • English-only vs. Spanish in Univision's presidential debate

    On Sept. 9, 2007, the Univision cable network and the University of Miami hosted the first Democratic presidential debate aimed specifically at Hispanic voters.  The questions were asked in Spanish and translated into English for the candidates, who were then required to answer in English -- even Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd, who are fluent in Spanish.  The English answers were then translated into Spanish for the audience.

    Those present at the Univision debate whose English was better than their Spanish could follow the candidates' English answers, while others could opt for the Spanish translation.  And viewers at home had the choice of hearing the broadcast in Spanish or in closed-caption English.  Univision later reported that more than 2.2 million viewers tuned in to the debate.

    The Univision debate has already enraged the English-only crowd, which strongly opposes any public display of Spanish, even on Spanish-language TV.  But Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic, seemed to think that Univision’s insistence on answers in English was actually placating the official-English crowd: "I'm disappointed today that 43 million Latinos in this country, for them not to hear one of their own speak Spanish, is unfortunate.  In other words, Univision is promoting English-only in this debate."

    Historically, opposition to languages other than English in the United States has been a veiled attack on immigrants (including as foreigners in their own land both Native Americans and Spanish settlers who came to the New World before the Anglos).  

    With immigration a hot-button issue in the current presidential race, language-waving has become the equivalent of flag-waving, because it’s not always politically correct to say, “I hate you, go back where you came from,” especially on national TV, but it’s OK to say, “We speak English. So should you, if you know what I mean?”   

    Dennis Kucinich on immigration

    Dennis Kucinich supported making Spanish official, but no one else on stage joined him

    Even people who are not particularly xenophobic characterize not speaking English as unpatriotic.  Though most of them can't read their bibles in the original, relying instead on an English translation to convey their religious truths, they draw the line at translating their sacred patriotic texts into other languages.  A Spanish version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” about a year ago drew presidential anger as well as national protests, and students are routinely saluted for sitting out Spanish recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance in schools.

    A patriotic forum

    It may have been a public display of Spanish, but the setting for Univision's Democratic presidential debate couldn’t have been more patriotic

    Seeing and hearing other languages makes monolingual English speakers want to market their own language more insistently to nonanglophones or to wrap it in legal protections.  Earlier this year Newt Gingrich suggested that Spanish was the language of the ghetto, while English was the language of money.  That was before the housing bubble burst and the dollar began its slide.

    If English won’t guarantee riches, then at least it will keep the country in one piece, say English-only supporters.  Adding to the fear that immigrants and their languages, most of them perceived to be illegal, are turning one nation into many, and that English is the only thing that can keep America's increasingly-fragile union whole, the ever-eloquent Tom Tancredo proclaimed during the CNN Republican debate, “We need that thing to hold us together.”

    Affirming the role of English as the glue of unification, Republican Rep. Steve King, who designed an electric fence to keep illegal immigrants from crossing the Mexican border and who recently sued his own state of Iowa for violations of its English-only statute, has placed his English Language Unity Act before the House once again.  And conservatives are eagerly waiting to see how Fred Thompson, who is a lawyer as well as playing one on TV, performs on their law-and-order language litmus test.

    But pushing English isn’t the only way to win votes.  Many politicians are wooing the increasingly-powerful Spanish voting bloc.  John McCain, who has recently found himself with plenty of time on his hands and is the only Republican presidential hopeful to take up Univision’s offer of a GOP debate, has lots of Hispanic voters in his state, and he's on record opposing official language legislation.  Even George Bush, though he subsequently condemned the singing of the national anthem in Spanish, played to Hispanic voters, literally, by singing patriotic songs en español, accompanied by a mariachi band.

    George Bush campaigns with mariachi band
    Jorge Bush y sus mariachis en 2000

    Not only that, but at the very moment when George Bush was complaining that people in this country should sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” in English, four versions of the song were available on the State Department’s Spanish-language website.  But it’s nothing new for the government to speak with forked tongue when it comes to language issues.  The first official translation of the national anthem into Spanish was sponsored by the Department of Education during World War I, at the same time that the nation was also busily banning the public use of all foreign languages.

    National anthem in Spanish
    The U.S. Bureau of Education commissioned this translation of the national anthem into Spanish in 1919

    But despite the increasing visibility of Spanish, English in America remains safe.  In fact it’s Spanish, not English, that’s on the wane, and not because of any laws protecting English, but simply because one of the first things that immigrants to the United States start shedding is their native tongue.  

    The children of Spanish-speaking Americans speak English too.  Increasingly, their English is better than their Spanish.  And for more and more of them, their Spanish is nonexistent.  That’s why churches in Latino neighborhoods are adding English services.  And it’s why colleges are offering heritage language courses for the children of immigrants whose cultural roots are shriveling.

    This ethnic language loss must be happening, because we even see it on TV: “Law and Order’s” Det. Ed Green speaks English almost all the time, though he occasionally translates sympathetically for a Spanish-speaking victim, and “The Closer’s” Mike Tao boasts in one episode that he has no Chinese at all.  Spanish-language media have even begun fielding English versions of their Spanish programming, to hold on to the anglophone Latin demographic.  

    Univision’s English-only rule for the candidates may have annoyed Gov. Richardson, but when at the start of the debate Dennis Kucinich was asked if he would promote Spanish as a second national language in the United States he simply responded, "Yes," and with no further explanation he switched to a discussion of health care benefits.

    Asked the same question, Chris Dodd was more evasive, replying that "the common language of our country is English," arguing that Americans need to become fluent in foreign languages, and sneaking in a few words of Spanish to illustrate his own familiarity with the language.  And Richardson said, "Language is important, but you know, Latinos are always asked these questions."  He then claimed that he didn't know he wouldn't be allowed to speak Spanish in the debate, and said a few words in Spanish.  At that point, the moderator reminded him that the no-Spanish rule ensured that the Spanish-speaking candidates would have no linguistic advantage with its Hispanic audience.  Univision later criticized Richardson for evading the question about official Spanish.

    Making English the official language of the United States didn’t actually come up during the debate.  If it had, it’s not likely that any of the seven participants would have supported the divisive English Language Unity Act, or any similar legislation – not because they feared a hostile reaction from the largely-Hispanic audience, but because they, as well as the audience, would have approved of the system of linguistic accommodation evident both in the debate, and in the nation: most Americans speak English, and those who don’t are typically invited to join the conversation in their first language, or in a combination of that language with English, or in English alone, depending on where they are in the ongoing and all-but-inevitable process of linguistic assimilation.

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