Bilingual, sort-of

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jun 3 17:47:49 UTC 2002

New York Times,  June 3, 2002

	Bilingual, So to Speak, but Halting


      This isn't going to be another story about Gregory-gate, is it?" a
White House official asked in exasperation last week. Not exactly. But
when President Bush made fun of David Gregory, the White House
correspondent for NBC, for asking a question in French of President
Jacques Chirac of France at a news conference by the two leaders on May 27
in Paris, it seemed an excellent opportunity to take a closer look at Mr.
Bush's foreign language, Spanish, and the politics of using it.

For starters, Mr. Bush may have been the first American president to speak
Spanish at lyse Palace, an odd locale to employ the language of Cervantes.
But in this case, Mr. Bush grabbed for a quick phrase in what looked like
an attempt at bilingual one-upsmanship with Mr. Gregory. "Very good, the
guy memorizes four words, and he plays like he's intercontinental," Mr.
Bush said of Mr. Gregory. "I'm impressed. Que bueno. Now I'm literate in
two languages." Mr. Bush was using the Spanish phrase for "how wonderful,"
as the deluge of articles about the incident pointed out the next day.

But just how wonderful is the president's Spanish? More to the point, how
much will speaking Spanish help lure crucial Latino voters to the
Republican fold in 2004? Mr. Bush probably answered the first question
best himself last month in Miami when he told thousands of cheering
Cuban-Americans, who vote overwhelmingly Republican, that "no quiero
destruir un idioma que bonita, y por eso voy a hablar en ingles"  "I don't
want to destroy a beautiful language, so I'm going to speak in English."

Various fluent Spanish speakers, depending on their political persuasion,
describe Mr. Bush's Spanish as halting to conversational, but all give him
high marks for trying. As the Spanish wire service Agencia EFE has noted,
Mr. Bush speaks the language poorly "but with great confidence." Other
Spanish speakers quibbled last year with Mr. Bush's pronunciation when he
made the first radio address in Spanish by a United States president. They
noted, for example, that he stumbled over the words administracion and
nuestros intereses, or our interests.

"He doesn't try very hard to get the pronunciation the way native speakers
speak," said Otto Santa Ana, a Chicano studies professor at the University
of California with a doctorate in linguistics. "But Latinos were very
encouraged by him. Here is the president of the United States speaking
Spanish, however haltingly. He's simply legitimizing what is so obvious to
us that people cheer him. And they cheer him because he's acknowledging
them as Americans."

Both Dr. Santa Ana and Israel Hernandez, a longtime aide to Mr. Bush,
describe Mr. Bush's accent as heavy West Texas. No matter, they say. "It's
conversational," said Mr. Hernandez, a deputy to Karl Rove, the
president's chief political adviser. "He understands enough to respond
back to people who ask him questions, and he could even read an article
and understand it."

During Mr. Bush's first campaign for governor of Texas, it was Mr.
Hernandez who probably heard more Spanish from Mr. Bush than anyone else.
The two spent long hours alone, driving from stop to stop, schmoozing in
Spanglish. "We would joke around and go in and out of English and
Spanish," Mr. Hernandez said. "You have to be good enough to do that. And
he understands Tex-Mex slang."

Mr. Bush first heard Spanish growing up in Midland, Tex., where many of
his classmates spoke it. He took Spanish courses in high school and at
Yale, and as an adult back in Texas he began to use the language whenever
he could. When Mr. Bush was owner of the Rangers baseball team, Mr.
Hernandez said, "I remember him going to the ballpark, and he would speak
Spanish to some of the players. It was, `Have a good game, how's the
family?' " Mr. Bush used Spanish in his unsuccessful 1978 Texas
Congressional race, his two governor's races and the 2000 presidential
campaign. Al Gore also used a little Spanish in the 2000 race, but
according to native speakers he spoke it worse than Mr. Bush.

Still, both candidates proved that the methods of pursuing the Latino vote
had progressed considerably since 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford ate
a tamale in front of television cameras during a campaign stop in San
Antonio but unfortunately did not realize he had to peel back the covering
of corn husk before taking a bite.

Mr. Bush can be expected to use Spanish liberally in the 2004 campaign,
particularly since Latinos are expected to be as much as 10 percent of the
electorate, up from 7 percent in 2000. "So by necessity, Republicans have
to win a larger share of them," said Matthew Dowd, who oversees polling
for the White House. Speaking Spanish can only help with Latinos who as a
group are inclined to vote Democratic, Mr. Dowd added.

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies,
agreed. "It's a very powerful signal, not just to the Latino community,
but to white swing voters who say, `Oh, this is a different kind of
Republican,' " he said. Nonetheless, no one should go overboard yet about
the importance of Spanish in winning American elections. Consider the most
fluent Spanish speaker of all the major modern presidential candidates:
Michael S. Dukakis.

          Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list