PROMOTING ENGLISH, SPEAKING SPANISH.

David Montgomery of the Washington Post has a good story on the contradictory impulses of politicians who want to pander to one group by demanding English be made America’s Official Language but also pander to another by making speeches and advertising in Spanish:

Newt Gingrich goes into one of his deep-think riffs on assimilation for immigrants, but he probably shouldn’t have implied that anything but English is “the language of living in a ghetto.”
So he does penance on YouTube, apologizing and explaining in — what else? — grammatically correct Spanish, albeit with a terminally Anglo accent. Turns out he’s a closet Spanish geek, getting tutored three times a week, while he considers a run for president…
The fact is, the politics of language is one thing, and the language of politics is another. Language is both a tool and a value.
The politics of language requires a politician to honor that sacred and hard-to-define concept, the “American identity.” The language of politics is about getting votes — and pragmatically accepting that every day, including Election Day, the American identity speaks in many tongues.
Reconciling the two means operating like those ubiquitous recorded phone prompts: “Press 1 to continue in English. Oprima el 2 para continuar en español.”
Coming out strongly and courageously in favor of English is a way of flashing a high-sign to a certain segment of the electorate. It’s a linguistic nod-and-a-wink to those who fear America’s soul is imperiled by the rise of a population speaking, thinking, dreaming in another language. Can you be a real American and speak Spanish? Bilingual Canada is held up as a warning.
“We cannot be a bilingual nation like Canada,” Romney told the Union Leader in New Hampshire, where few Latinos live, so few were likely to get that message.
Yet down in Florida, Romney was one of the first in the race to air a Spanish-language radio ad, and he is one of the few GOP candidates to have an “En Español” Web option. Click on it, and see one of Romney’s sons give a video testimonial in excellent Spanish, acquired during a missionary stint in Chile: “Hola, soy Craig Romney, y les quiero hablar un poco sobre mi papá, Mitt Romney . . . “

I hate the idea of an Official Language, and I love to see politicians writhe and squirm. This story comes via Ben Zimmer at Language Log, where you will find further discussion and a prediction: “expect our leading politicians to use more and more Spanish in the coming campaign season.”

Comments

  1. The US is among countries which have Google News pages in more than one language: English and Spanish.
    So far, no politician seems to have Viewed this With Alarm.

  2. Although no current politician in Australia currently speaks an Aboriginal language or is trying to, there’s a similar thing happening in Australia.
    Basically, the right-wing government in Australia is getting on their English-only bandwagon and undermining the status of Aboriginal languages and those for whom one such language is their native tongue.
    Language Log already had a post about it at: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004567.html
    In Australia, that kind of thing is called dog-whistle politics, in that something relatively benign is said, but the underlyingly slanderous message is heard by those who need to.

  3. Give it time, Dan. I’m sure they will eventually. The politicians are probably just not very internet savvy.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Still laughing (and cringing) at “patria o muerte — venceremos”! :-D

  5. “”We cannot be a bilingual nation like Canada,” Romney told the Union Leader in New Hampshire, where few Latinos live, so few were likely to get that message.”
    Is there something wrong about being a bilingual nation? I have very little natural aptitude for learning languages; if I hadn’t grown up in Canada and been forced to take French classes I very much doubt I would have otherwise become fluent in French – something I’m now quite grateful for. And it adds a small amount of amusement to (ordinarily rather dull) Canadian politics as anglophone candidates for party leaderships try to demonstrate their command of the french language.

  6. I wonder how well anti-Quebec rhetoric goes over in Maine and New Hampshire. There’s a substantial French-surname population there, some of whom still speak French I think, and a lot of people there understand that Quebec isn’t really a hellhole. (On the other hand, anti-French Anglo Canadians may be influential in NE too.)
    In the Republican primary I imagine that anti-French language is safe.

  7. Is there something wrong about being a bilingual nation?
    No, of course not. This is about politics, not reality.

  8. I don’t know John, when I was growing up the anti-French language sentiment in NH from Anglo-Americans was still fairly strong. Until recently Quebec immigrants were at the bottom of the social pecking order and were expected to learn English as quickly as possible. And people of French Canadian ancestry were generally Democrats. So I suspect anti-Quebec rhetoric goes over pretty well, at least with the GOP base Romney’s trying to win over.
    America must be the only nation in the world where English is “under threat.” I just got back from a 6 month stint in Europe and the global onslaught of English appears to be gaining speed if anything. At this point English is the de facto language of the entire EU, spoken by anyone who wants to be taken seriously in business, politics, science or even entertainment.

  9. SnowLeopard says:

    I don’t remember anything in the way of anti-French sentiment growing up in Vermont. Anyway, English has already had its turn to become the official language and wasn’t successful, so I think it’s only fair that other languages should get to try. We should have Congressional hearings on each one, starting at the end of the alphabet. By the time they’ve debated the Russian influence on the Yup’ik lexicon, they may feel there are more pressing matters to attend to — thus ending the best C-Span ever.

  10. solus rex says:

    This is about politics, not reality.
    Yes and no. Because it’s not the language itself that is under threat, it is the very American nationhood.

  11. “This is about politics, not reality.”
    That’s a pretty strange take on politics. You must mean linguistic reality.
    There’s the political reality of the bureaucratic cost of not having a single official language. Thisn is not just the printing cost of producing voter’s pamphlets in ten languages, but the ethical cost in doing it for nine languages in a community or state and not the other 90. That works out to be just as majoritarian , or pressure-based, as doing it in one language and telling everyone to do it or screw it.
    There’s also the political reality of assigning Mixtec and Zapotec-speaking young children to bilingual ed classes where they are presented with instruction in, of all abominations, Spanish. Never mind what your parents want for you, you are born peons and you need to know the language of peonage. That is a legal and political reality, real enough for those kids.
    Shops or whatever can put their signage up in any language(s) their customers want, and banks can have as many languages on an ATM as they can fit on a menu – that is linguistic reality. But as a matter of bureaucratic expediency, it is simpler and cheaper and fairer to settle on one language and use that for the official standard, just for bureaucratic use if nothing else. To avoid foodfights you might choose the language of some small amd obscure minority, like the English in the US.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    English “under threat”:
    I once asked the following question on an exam in an introductory linguistics course: Of these four languages currently spoken in Canada, which one has the best and which one the least chance of surviving: English, Micmac [a native Canadian language], Ukrainian [still spoken on the Prairies], French? Most students identified English and Micmac as having the best and the least chance, but one of them thought that English was the one most in danger, since the government was financing special programs to teach native languages or French, but was not doing anything to promote English!
    … assigning Mixtec and Zapotec-speaking young children to bilingual ed classes where they are presented with instruction in, of all abominations, Spanish. Never mind what your parents want for you, you are born peons and you need to know the language of peonage.
    I doubt that the educational authorities placing those children in Spanish classes are doing it so that the children will learn Spanish instead of English. They probably simply assume that anyone coming from Latin America speaks Spanish.

  13. bjalder26 says:

    This is a lame attack. Romney isn’t trying to decimate the Spanish language in America; he just wants to make sure every American speaks English. That’s why he is for English Emersion, so that kids who families don’t speak English as a first language won’t be at a disadvantage in the workforce. Liberals act like Mitt wants to outlaw speaking other languages on US soil. Guess what, Mitt is bi-lingual, some of his sons are also, why would he not want anybody else to be bi-lingual?

  14. Please, Romney knows this isn’t a real issue, he is just pandering to the xenophobic element of his base. There are a lot of people in the US who really feel threatened by foreign languages. I’ve heard people say they are are “offended” by automated telephone messages which include “para Espanol, marque el dos”.
    BTW, can we stop talking about the “Spanish” language? It’s “Castilian”, people. (Yes, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Barcelona lately.)

  15. michael farris says:

    If you were in Barcelona does your passport now have a stamp from Spain or Catalunya?
    IME whether the language is called castellano or español varies by country and/or speaker, both are understood but one or the other is (often very strongly) preferred.
    From the fine folks at the academia real (www.rae.es):
    “la lengua española”
    Take that! catalanistas!

  16. “They probably simply assume that anyone coming from Latin America speaks Spanish.”
    Well of course, and that is the problem, not an exculpation. Any teacher will tell you that adults’ assumptions about kids become facts for kids. The point is that bilingual ed needs to be in the student’s actual first language.
    “English “under threat”: etc.
    I agree with you here. How does anyone get this impression? English is pandemic these days.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    “They probably simply assume that anyone coming from Latin America speaks Spanish.”
    Well of course, and that is the problem, not an exculpation.

    That’ss what I meant – an explanation, not an excuse.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    corrections:
    “They probably simply assume that anyone coming from Latin America speaks Spanish.”
    Well of course, and that is the problem, not an exculpation.
    That’s what I meant – an explanation, not an excuse.

  19. solus rex says:

    I’ve heard people say they are are “offended” by automated telephone messages which include “para Espanol, marque el dos”.
    I am. More disgusted than personally offended, but that’s a distinction without a real difference.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    SR: Yet if you were going to another, non-English-speaking country, and needed to use the phone, you would probably be relieved to hear “for English, press two” among other messages in an unknown language.

  21. michael farris says:

    marie-lucie, but you see that’s very different … just don’t ask how.

  22. solus rex says:

    marie-lucie:
    I probably would be. However, that is indeed very different: “para Espanol, besa mi culo” is offensive not per se, but because of what it represents. Namely, not to put too fine a point on that, this country being stolen away from its people, with the collusion of political and business elites and assorted useful idiots.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    this country being stolen away from its people

    There goes another irony meter.
    “This land is your land, it once was my land, before we sold you Manhattan Island…”
    solus rex, you are paranoid. You are afraid of something that you don’t understand. Get help.

  24. solus rex says:

    Speak of the devil…

  25. Now, now, I’m sure we can disagree without ungentlemanly accusations. ¿No es así?

  26. vanya: I just got back from a 6 month stint in Europe and the global onslaught of English appears to be gaining speed if anything. At this point English is the de facto language of the entire EU, spoken by anyone who wants to be taken seriously in business, politics, science or even entertainment.
    And a damned nuisance it is, too. I am not, uhm, religiously opposed to English as a world language, and I don’t even think it is a particularly difficult one, but I am fed up with how English words and phrases are used in advertising in my country in order to appear cool or fashionable.
    If Solus Rex feels threatened by the onslaught of Spanish, it serves him daaamn right. His sort of ugly Americans have been pushing their lingo down our throats for too long.
    Y sí, claro que soy aprendiendo castellano, es un idioma que me gusta mucho.

  27. And if the USA have something worthwhile to give to the world, it is the constitution, the democratic tradition and Mark Twain. There is no difficulty whatsoever to translate the first one into Spanish or to express the second one in that language. And as regards Mark Twain, I enjoyed Huckleberry Finn’s adventures very much in my childhood when Granny read them to me in Finnish, so it should not be that difficult to translate them into Spanish either.

  28. michael farris says:

    “And a damned nuisance it is, too”
    Isn’t it? One of the things I’ve noticed is that the great majority of european second language users (90% conservative estimate) could care less for the language (that is their approach is entirely utilitarian with no affect). It can’t be good for a language to be spoken by so many people with so little feeling for it.
    As for dumb usage of english in the media, some years ago I had classes in a room with a tv connected to eutelsat or hotbird. Anyway, once killing time before class I was channel surfing and had stopped briefly on a bangladeshi channel. The 10 or so students (of ethnolinguistics) that had already arrived thought the random mixing in of English words and phrases in Bengali was hilarious and made the language seem ridiculous. I said Polish full of unnecessary English creates the same impression (and was rewarded with a set of tight-lipped glares).

  29. For the sake of future Googlers, I add this link to a nice follow-up (kind of) at LL: “A tip of the hat to Senator McCain”.

  30. solus rex says:

    Panu:
    Do “ugly Americans” pour into Finland by the million, with an all but explicit goal of reconquista, actively aided and abetted by the “après nous le déluge” attitude of the government and the big business, and the idiocy of the cognitive elites?

  31. michael farris says:

    According to this, Finland is at present a country with net immigration. Slightly dated but if anything I think the trend has probably increased.
    http://www.finland.fi/netcomm/news/showarticle.asp?intNWSAID=25787

  32. solus rex says:

    “Бо то не просто мова, звуки,
    Не словникові холодини -
    В них чути труд, і піт, і муки,
    Чуття єдиної родини.”
    Written in completely different circumstances and in entirely different regard, but strangely apt here, as good poetry tend to be.

  33. solus: Who’s the poet?

  34. not solus rex says:

    Pavlo Tychyna, who also said, Скільки мов ти знаєш – стільки разів ти людина.
    Englished here, I think.

  35. Y sí, claro que soy aprendiendo castellano, es un idioma que me gusta mucho.

    Debes escribir ’estoy aprendiendo’ allí, a Phanu. :-)

  36. solus rex says:

    Скільки мов ти знаєш – стільки разів ти людина.
    I guess that makes me thrice human. But I have absolutely no desire to hear “чтобы говорить по-русски, нажмите ‘два’”, either.

  37. NYT did a survey of candidates’ foreign languages.
    Huckabee aims to get partial credit for reading koine Greek. (He may have also read some pagan authors, but doesn’t say so.)

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