Former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich raised eyebrows after publicly criticizing bilingual education. He said that it teaches “the language of living in a ghetto.” Instead, he suggested that English be made the primary language of public education in the United States. This, he said, would teach “the language of prosperity.”
Gingrich’s comments reflect the growing debate over immigration and the effect foreigners have on the American way of life. His unfortunate word choice reveals an offensive and irresponsible approach to a sensitive subject that affects millions.
When drawing the parallel between teaching bilingualism and the “language of living in a ghetto,” Gingrich was generalizing the economic plight of non-English-speaking peoples in this country.
Hispanic immigrants seem to be struggling
the most. More than one-fifth of Spanish speakers live below the poverty line, and 37 percent don’t have high school diplomas, according the U.S. Census Bureau.
Comparatively, only 12 percent of English
speakers live below the poverty line, and 11 percent of that group holds a high school diploma. Those who only speak a foreign language other than Spanish fare almost as well.
The numbers show that the majority of non-English speakers do not live in poverty, even if they do not live as well as natural citizens.
Gingrich made no effort to prove direct links between poverty, poor education and bilingualism among Americans. This means he was either misinformed or he was trying to simplify his message through stereotypes.
The idea of English being the “language of prosperity” suggests a dangerously ethnocentric point of view. Global commerce and diplomacy are conducted in several major languages, and, naturally, many nations encourage or require bilingual education in order to communicate with other countries.
Although Gingrich has since recognized that his word choice was poor, he has offered no apology. As a former speaker of the House and a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2008, he showed a level of recklessness and arrogance in his language.
In the same speech, Gingrich, who has wanted to make English the official language of the federal government throughout his career, suggested that ballots should only be printed in English.
His call for English-only ballots is based on the requirement that individuals must pass a U.S. history test in English in order to become a naturalized citizen. If one can pass this test, Gingrich said he sees no need for ballots to be printed in other languages.
This move would be reminiscent of poll taxes and literacy tests used to discriminate against and disenfranchise blacks during the Jim Crow era of racial discrimination. Eliminating other languages from the ballot could potentially alienate millions of Americans who deserve political representation. There are 35 million foreign-born people living in the United States, according to the Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey. Nearly one-fifth of the entire U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home. In California, this figure is 42.3 percent, the highest of any state.
As immigration reform and border control
remain hot political issues, it is important that naturalized citizens be given the full rights of citizenship as well. Language should never keep them from casting their votes.If English were made the official language of the United States, the promises afforded to all American citizens under the 14th Amendment
would be pushed out of reach for those who do not speak English well.
Of the nearly 15 million foreign-born, naturalized citizens, only 39.4 percent speak English “very well,” while nearly the same amount speak English below this level, according to Census Bureau standards. The biggest threat to the American way of life is not the influence of foreign cultures, but the close-mindedness and ethnocentrism that could isolate this country from the rest of the world. As the fabric of American culture changes, attitudes must change as well.
Brian Krier can be reached at