Saturday, April 7, 2007

Assimilation via Language

Newt Gingrich takes to the op-ed page of the LA Times today to clarify his YouTubed remark equating Spanish with “the language of living in a ghetto.” His premise is as follows:

Mastering the language of a country opens doors of opportunity. . . . In the United States, English is by no means our only language, but it is the language of economic success and upward mobility.

This is so self-evident, I’m constantly dumbfounded when I run into someone (say, a server in the capitol building cafeteria, as I did yesterday) who shrugs and says, “No hablo Inglés.”

Of course, the ignorance of such people is their loss, not mine, and ignorance does not threaten me. What does threaten me, for instance, are multilingual ballots.

Why should ballots be unilingual? Because what makes America unique is our ability to assimilate immigrants. A common tongue gives us unity and thus strength. As Charles Krauthammer has argued,

The key to assimilation . . . is language. The real threat to the United States is not immigration per se but bilingualism and, ultimately, biculturalism. Having grown up in Canada, where a language divide is a recurring source of friction and fracture, I can only wonder at those who want to duplicate that plague in the United States. . . .

The way to prevent European-like immigration catastrophes is to turn every immigrant—and most surely his children—into an [English-speaking] American.

Indeed, this is why bilingual education—that is, being taught (usually in Spanish) while being gradually taught English—is misguided. As Krauthammer notes, “It delays assimilation by perhaps a full generation.”

To be sure, had I learned espanol while learning English (instead of blowing off classes in the former in high school), I bet I'd be fluent today. Research shows that learning a language is easiest when you're young and the mind is sponge-like. Moreover, in part because of our geographic insulation, Americans are less worldly than our European counterparts, among whom bilingualism is the rule rather the exception. In the age of interconnectedness, speaking only one tongue—even if it's the global one—surely puts us at a competitive disadvantage.

These objections are valid, but can both be addressed via immersion classes, instead of bilingual education. The difference
between English-first and English-second—is crucial, and, in fact, once one learns English, one should move on to Spanish.