Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Apr 6 13:37:56 UTC 2007


by John McWhorter

When Newt Gingrich decried bilingual education programs and bilingual
government as fostering the language of the "ghetto" last week, with the
ghetto language in question being Spanish, it was predictable that
assorted good-thinking people would condemn Gingrich for implying that the
language of Cervantes and Garcia Marquez is a ghetto patois. However,
whatever one's opinion of Gingrich and his politics, there is no reason to
suppose that a reasoning American person would be under any impression
that Spanish itself is somehow not a "real language." Gingrich indeed
could have expressed himself more gracefully, but his real mistake was his
empirically unfounded notions about bilingualism in general.

Gingrich's comment, of a sort that regularly whips up applause from
concerned right-wing sorts, implies a particular situation: that there are
parts of the United States where people are being raised in such a way
that they do not really learn English, or at least, learn English so
poorly that they are more comfortable in Spanish and need Spanish-language
ballots to participate in an election. One senses that Gingrich's
conception here is based on noticing that indeed, there are Latinos in the
United States who can barely communicate in English. However, they are
adults, who grew up speaking Spanish and not English. When they raise
children here, yes, the children speak Spanish, but they also speak
English. They could barely manage not to, given that they are immersed in
an Anglophone media as well as a great many Latinos around them who do
speak English, switching between it and Spanish all day every day.

In other words, they are bilingual. It is a peculiarly American notion
that being bilingual is something exotic and fragile, like a double-yolked
egg. Being bilingual is, in fact, a norm worldwide. There are about 6000
languages in the world and only about 200 nations, each with an official
language or two (or three or four in some cases). Do the math--billions of
human beings do not speak just one language. One wants to ask people like
Gingrich to just run snapshots of people on Earth in the news and think
about how few of them we can assume speak only one tongue. Gingrich may
want to know why these bilingual kids need bilingual education programs if
they can just inhale English from their surroundings. The answer is that
early in their lives, these kids' primary language is indeed Spanish. And
research has shown, quite conclusively, that children get a leg up in
early learning when taught first in their primary language.

Now, it is just as indisputable that in practice, Spanish-English
bilingual ed programs have tended to become stagnant boondoggles for a
minor industry of bilingual ed teachers, with bearded teenagers lagging in
Spanish-language classes. Gingrich is right to be put off by the postures
of identity politics that have kept these kinds of programs alive.
However, bilingual ed programs in other countries are quite common and
work much better. They could work better here in the U.S. They would help
immigrants' children to be better prepared to participate in an
increasingly white collar work force. That is, they could be a force for
integration, as they are in many countries worldwide. Surely Gingrich
would be for that.

Meanwhile, even the bearded miseducated kids speak English in their daily
lives. The state of their education is such that they would likely have as
much trouble with an English-language ballot on the latest Propositions as
with a Spanish-language one. People born in a country, by and large, learn
to speak its language, and without trying--especially when that language
is the world's universal tongue, English. Think about immigrant couples'
kids who you know--the parents have thick accents and make mistakes, but
somehow by toddlerhood their child is speaking unaccented American. This
is normal.

Obvious, right? The implication would seem to be, then, that Gingrich
deplores that there are first-generation immigrants in the United States
who were raised in Spanish and would therefore be more comfortable reading
official brochures, with the complex language they entail, in Spanish. I
presume that Gingrich also shudders at the thought of the Lower East Side
teeming with Jews more comfortable with Yiddish a hundred years ago, or
the Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach reading their Novoe Russkoye
Slovo every day instead of The New York Times. Horrors!! If what Gingrich
intends by this is a coded signal to his flock that Latino immigrants need
to go home, then I understand. The empirical and logical lapses would
classify, I suppose, as the eggs one breaks to make an omelette, although
I personally would not concur with the policy proposal in question.

If this is not what he means, however, it's time for him and all of the
people so aroused by the spectacle of Spanish being spoken daily in
America to wake up to the simple fact that it is most Americans,
comfortable only in a single tongue, who are the odd ones out as human
beings go. I'm not one for reflexive calls to Celebrate Diversity just for
its own sake. But in this case, maybe we could just Acknowledge Normality?


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