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.”