A Linguistic Ghetto?
Back in 2007, Newt Gingrich made a remark that everyone should learn English instead of the "language of the ghetto." Afterwards, he meekly apologized. But now, in light of Mitt Romney's use of the sound-bite in a negative ad in Florida (isn't "negative ad" kind of a redundant phrase at this point?), Newt claims that he was not in fact referring to Spanish, because, after all, there are a lot of other languages spoken in this country.
But why would Gingrich apologize in Spanish to Spanish-speaking peoples if he were not referring to the Spanish language? This question was posed to Newt by the ever-sharp Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, to no coherent response. For a purported firebrand, Newt seemed at a loss in attempting to explain this innocuous yet politically ill-advised comment.
Gingrich originally made the controversial remark in the context of his advocacy for making English the official language of the United States and his advocacy of English immersion in U.S. schools. English immersion sounds like a nice concept, especially when compared to bilingual education. But once you have students who don't speak English in our public schools, there really is no good solution. "Immersing" a Spanish-speaking student into regular classes is not as easy as it sounds. It involves taking a foreign student with no language abilities and putting him in a class with other students who need to be challenged with relatively complex instruction. The needs of these two groups of students are mutually exclusive.
Making language immersion more difficult is the fact that students are not tracked by ability in our left-dominated and controlled schools. ELL (English language-learner) students are generally placed with students who are at grade level, as opposed to remedial. Were schools able, or willing, to put ELL students with the most remedial and otherwise dysfunctional students, the proposition of English immersion would be significantly more feasible, or at least less impractical.
Bilingual education, on the other hand, is especially abhorrent to conservatives due to the cultural implications. It amounts to ceding the fact that we have no dominant culture or language. Given the status quo of rampant legal and illegal immigration from Spanish-speaking countries, one can make a logical argument for either immersion or bilingualism. Obama has been on record supporting bilingual education. The more important question is whether or not we continue with the status quo of immigration.
The ideal solution is to simply admit fewer foreign students. In doing so, fewer ELL and ESL (English as second language) services would be required. This would lessen schools' vulnerability to lawsuits filed by immigrant parents claiming that these services are not adequately being provided. Imagine -- moving to a new country and then suing the school district because your children are not being accommodated! Only in the good ol' US of A.
It's likely that English Language Immersion was more successful during the pre-1960 waves of immigration due to the multiplicity of languages which immigrants spoke at that time, as opposed to the present situation. Currently, Spanish speakers are able to live in linguistically insular and self-contained communities where they can absorb media, entertainment, customer service, and, most abhorrently, government services in Spanish. Tony Blankley, in a piece published in 2007 which defended Gingrich's controversial remark, referred to this phenomenon as a "linguistic ghetto," echoing Gingrich's word-choice.
Ultimately, advocating for an official language or English immersion in public schools while having a soft stance on immigration is self-contradictory, or at least impractical. Whether or not Gingrich himself has a soft stance on immigration may be debatable. But if he is staking out a moderate ground on this issue in the Republican primaries, it is certainly conceivable that a Gingrich nominee would stake out an even more moderate, or even liberal position on this issue in his pivot to the political center. In this sense, Gingrich is advocating policies which would make English as the official U.S. language an even more untenable proposition than it already is.
Anything short of a strict immigration policy would ensure that our public schools continue to be filled with more ESL students who wander obliviously from class to class with no idea what their teachers say. It would also mean more Spanish-language channels on radio and television, and more government services in Spanish.
Whether or not one refers to it as the "language of the ghetto" is irrelevant in light of the growing ubiquity of Spanish in America. The point is that policies, not words, will affect the extent to which Spanish rivals English as the dominant language. As much as I agree with Newt's sentiment that English should be the official language of the United States, his nomination would likely pose as an obstacle to that goal.
Malcolm Unwell instructs English at the university and secondary level. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.