Celebrating all things Mexican doesn’t go down too well in much of America. Last year it was Alex Jones saying that all those illegal immigrants from down that way actually want to make all Real Americans their slaves – there’s a clever but well-planned conspiracy to make the rest of us support them in lives of lavish luxury, and Obama and the Democrats have been secretly working with them all along. These odd and evil people won’t ever assimilate. They want to take over. They keep speaking their language even when they’re here. One hears Spanish in the streets all the time, after all. They even have the temerity to be proud of their heritage, as if they were Irish or something. The Irish are fine. They speak English, sort of.
This assimilation thing is hard. Which people, as a people, are we supposed to care about? Are we supposed to care? Growing up in the early fifties in a Slovak enclave on the dark north side of Pittsburgh didn’t make it easy to answer that question, with one side of the family Slovak and the other side Czech, and not being allowed to speak either language, because all the parents there wanted their kids to be American, and nothing but American. The first ten years were ten years of not knowing what anyone was saying half the time – but we were, undeniably, Czechoslovak folks – except the country had only been thought up in late May, 1918, right there in Pittsburgh.
No, really – the Pittsburgh Agreement was a memorandum of understanding between members of Czech and Slovak expatriate communities over here, setting up a country over there, in a quiet corner in the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These folks finally had a real country, and that country quickly developed its own national pride. The handsome and noble and brave Victor Lazlo, in Casablanca, was Czechoslovak, as he should be – it was that business with the Sudetenland and Hitler and all that followed. Later, in 1968, the Russian tanks rolled into Prague. Even thoroughly Americanized kids knew something was going on in “their” county, but in the late fifties the family had moved to a raw new white-bread Pittsburgh suburb, with the tract houses and the big high school with Friday night football and a marching band and all the rest, and none of that mattered much. Assimilation was complete – and then on New Year’s Day, 1993, Czechoslovakia was dissolved, by mutual agreement. The Slovaks got their own country, as did the Czechs. Czechoslovakia had lasted seventy-five years, proud and good, and then it was gone. It’s just as well the parents raised us as generic Americans.
But something was lost. Assimilation is good, except when it isn’t. The lovely Irish should have their Saint Patrick’s Day parades in every city each year, and everyone loves an authentic Italian restaurant, but it had better be regional, and the more obscure the region the better – Tuscany is so last decade. It’s often Celtic night on PBS too – willowy women with odd small harps singing something quite incomprehensible in the artful shadows. That’s cool, and Greek festivals are fine too, even if the traditional pine resin in that odd white wine makes it taste a bit like turpentine. And let them speak their languages. They’re fascinating. Los Angeles is home now – Thai Town and Little Armenia are a few blocks east, and just down the hill everyone is Ukrainian, and further down Fairfax there’s Little Ethiopia. The French expatriates live down on Fountain, the Chinese in Monterey Park, and Garden Grove is Little Saigon. Mid-Wilshire is Koreatown. Every nurse in every hospital in Los Angeles speaks Tagalog – and English of course. You hear more than Spanish all the time – and you want to hear more. It’s a big wide world out there. There’s always something new to learn. Bring it on.
This may be geographic. It’s hard to be xenophobic in Los Angeles. You’d have to stay home with the windows closed. On the other hand, at the bottom of the hill here, down on Santa Monica Boulevard, there’s that gas station where you can buy a lottery ticket and chat with the extended family that runs the place, and who tend to slip in and out of some Pakistani dialect or other. That’s kind of fun if you like languages – you can ask them about what this or that word means and learn a thing or two – but now and then some redneck, from Fontana or some such place, with his monster pickup truck idling outside, will be screaming at them, telling them to speak English, damn it – this is America.
That happens out here too. Some people have a problem with the big wide world even when it’s all around them. It makes them uncomfortable. It makes them angry. These “foreign” people are probably making fun of them to their face in a language they don’t understand, making fools of them, and there’s no way to fight back. People hate feeling powerless, even if the Pakistani talk is usually about what’s for dinner tonight and the Pakistanis down the hill are United States citizens now. They are Americans.
There are, however, those who feel powerless and angry and would rather not learn a thing or two, and they vote, and Donald Trump knows that:
Donald Trump took a jab Wednesday at Jeb Bush for using Spanish to dismiss the mogul’s conservative credibility.
“I like Jeb,” Trump told Breitbart News. “He’s a nice man. But he should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”
Trump was referring to the former Florida governor’s comments to reporters on Tuesday about Trump’s policies.
“El hombre no es conservador,” Bush said, which translates to, “This man is not a conservative.”
“He supports people like Nancy Pelosi. He has given money to Hillary Clinton. He’s been a Democrat longer than he’s been a Republican. He has said he’s felt more comfortable being a Democrat,” Bush said.
Trump was having none of that:
“You know, Ronald Reagan wasn’t a conservative,” Trump said. “He became a great conservative. By the time I’m finished, people will say I’m a great conservative.”
Trump continued, suggesting that he would run for re-election in 2020.
“By the time I’m finished with the presidency, after eight years of the presidency, people will say I’m a great conservative – far greater than Jeb would ever have the ability to be,” he said.
But that wasn’t the real issue:
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday that his chief opponent, front-runner Donald Trump, is “trying to insult his way” to the White House.
“I think Donald Trump is trying to insult his way to the presidency and it’s not gonna work,” Bush told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “People want an uplifting hopeful message. People come to this country to pursue their dreams, sometimes they start without speaking English but they learn English and they add vitality to our, to our country and the fact that he would say you only can speak English is kind of ridiculous if you think about it.”
Jeb lives in the big wide world:
Bush, who hopes to win over Hispanic voters, often talks of how he fell in love with his Mexican-American wife Columba while traveling in college. He mocked Trump in his appearance Thursday morning.
“Are we going to close all the foreign language classes? Is he – why would he have a contract with Univision for his beauty pageant,” Bush said. …
The spat came just one day after the former Florida governor spoke to a class of bilingual students Tuesday.
“I was in a classroom two days ago La Progressiva High School where these young beautiful kids all speak English but they also speak Spanish and one of them asked me a question in Spanish and I answered it,” Bush said. “That’s the reality of America. That’s the goodness of America. That’s the America we want. So part of it is you laugh because it’s so bizarre but it’s hurtful for a lot of people and Mr. Trump knows this. He’s appealing to peoples’ angst and their fears rather than their higher hopes.”
And that would explain this:
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday finds that the real estate magnate is viewed unfavorably by 82% of Hispanics, with 68% feeling “strongly so.” Just 15% of those surveyed view Trump favorably.
Those numbers are a sharp contrast to the Spanish-speaking Jeb Bush, who is viewed favorably by 43% of Hispanic voters, a higher percentage than is usual for Republicans.
But only 39% of whites have a favorable view of Bush, compared to 48% who have a positive opinion of Trump.
Angry white folks who feel queasy when someone in the room is speaking a language they would rather not learn tend to despise Jeb Bush. They don’t know what he’s saying. He could be insulting them, but Bush saw an opening:
A defiant Jeb Bush struck back at Donald Trump on Thursday, declaring in English and Spanish that he would campaign with “los brazos abiertos” – arms wide open. … Earlier in the day during an interview with ABC News, Bush said that he “laughed” when he first heard Trump’s comments, saying, “I mean, this is a joke.” He also said that Trump “doesn’t believe in tolerance” or the “things that created the greatness of this country.”
The loudest applause during the employee town hall at Foss Manufacturing came when Bush expressed the need for an optimistic world view. But he refused to throw red meat at a conservative crowd that might have appreciated it. In a contentious moment, an angry voter demanded that the United States take the “offensive” against Mexico to stop illegal immigration, calling out Bush’s plan, which would provide legal status for some migrants, as “appeasement.”
While agreeing that criminals ought to be kicked out, Bush pushed back, reiterating his belief that most migrants are “coming to provide for their families.” The Florida Republican stated that he would not “ascribe bad motives for people that are trying to provide for their families” and he would not “change his views,” which he didn’t “view as appeasement.”
That’s dangerous, and humane. There’s that new Trump ad that ends when the screen turns black and, in white lettering, there’s this – “Love? Forget love. It’s time to get tough!”
We’ll have none of that love here. The lines have been drawn, but even the conservative Kathleen Parker is a bit taken aback:
Donald Trump has a point when he talks about the need for immigrants to learn English. “That’s how we assimilate,” he says. Which is true, as any visitor to Miami’s Little Havana has observed.
You can spend an entire day in this mostly Cuban section of the city and hear nary a word of English. Many never bothered to learn English because, mainly, they didn’t have to. They’ve gotten by just fine in their tiny nation within a city. Nor, to Trump’s point, have they assimilated.
Such pockets doubtless exist elsewhere, especially in border states, and are likely to expand as more people come here illegally. To Trump and those he appeals to, these population trends pose an existential threat to the country. A nation divided by language is a nation divided – which is also true. But it is utterly ridiculous to insist that only English be spoken at all times.
Jeb was simply doing something sensible:
The questions were asked in Spanish, so it must have seemed natural for Bush, who is bilingual, to respond in kind.
This is classic Trump. He sees his opponent’s positive and converts it to a negative. One of Bush’s trump cards is that he can speak directly to Hispanic voters who are crucial to winning the presidency.
Thanks to Trump’s derogatory remarks about Mexicans and his “deport-’em” doctrine, his net favorability among Hispanic voters is minus-51 compared to Bush’s plus-11 (compared to Hillary Clinton’s plus-40!). This, despite the fact that Trump persists in reminding everyone that he employs thousands of Hispanics and “they love me!”
Parker can only add this:
As a bilingual person myself, I can’t express how grateful I am to my father who insisted I learn the language, telling me: “You’re going to need to know Spanish to survive in the world you’re going to inherit.”
Circumstances didn’t prove to be quite as urgent as he had imagined, but he was prescient about future demographics. As it turns out, I speak Spanish daily, which I enjoy for its own sake. But also I enjoy warm relationships with countless new Americans who haven’t yet mastered the predominant language and appreciate the gesture of respect. We connect on a level others can’t.
Giving Trump his due, we’re connecting because of our shared language. And, you can be sure, Bush and Marco Rubio are also connecting with those voters and reporters who address them in Spanish.
And just a note:
Trump knows full well how valuable bilingualism is in this country, especially when it comes to his own businesses. A 2014 job posting for one of his hotels said bilingualism was “preferred.” That’s just plain business sense – and Bush is merely brandishing his political sense.
Andres Oppenheimer goes further:
In fact, U.S. politicians, and Americans in general, should be speaking more Spanish – and more Chinese, and more Hindi, and more German and French as well. In a globalized world, in which isolationism leads to backwardness, Americans should increasingly be learning and speaking more foreign languages. …
“Taking this to the logical conclusion, I guess, no more French classes for public schools? ‘German, no we can’t have that. You can only speak English,'” Bush was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency. “I mean English is the language of our country and people that come to this country need to learn English. That doesn’t mean they should stop speaking their native tongue.”
Then it got hot:
Trump supporters, echoing their candidate, said that if immigrants don’t speak English, they will never learn it. In addition, most of the world already speaks English as a second language anyway, so U.S. citizens should not lose much sleep over not speaking other languages, some argued.
Trump critics countered that English proficiency among Latinos is rising, while immigration from Mexico has declined significantly in recent years. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 68 percent of all Hispanics aged 5 and over are fluent in English, up from 59 percent in 2000.
While older Hispanic immigrants may still not be fluent in English, almost eight in 10 of young Hispanics under 18 are fluent in both languages, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.
And there’s that other matter:
Regarding the Trump camp’s claim that Americans should not worry too much about foreign languages because English has become the world’s No. 1 language, critics counter that English-speaking countries no longer dominate the world economy.
Indeed, the Council on Foreign Relations, a major Washington-D.C. think tank, concluded in a June 26, 2012, policy memorandum that “the global economy is shifting away from the English-speaking world. Since 1975, the English-speaking share of the global GDP has fallen significantly, and will continue to fall.”
The report adds that China’s economy is expected to surpass the U.S. economy soon – by some measures, it already has – and that Latin America and South Asia are accounting for an increasingly larger share of global trade.
“Future U.S. growth will increasingly depend on selling U.S. goods and services to foreign consumers who do not necessarily speak English,” the report adds. “It is an old adage that you can buy in any language, but you must sell in the language of your customer.”
This is simple:
Trump got it all wrong. The United States will lose competitiveness in an increasingly global economy if its population does not speak foreign languages. If Trump wants to “make America great again,” as his campaign slogan reads, he should learn Spanish, and other languages, and start speaking them as often as he can.
Some do disagree on that:
Immigrants to the United States should “speak American,” former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said on Sunday, adding her voice to a controversy triggered by Donald Trump’s criticism of Republican rival Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish.
“It’s a benefit of Jeb Bush to be able to be so fluent in Spanish, because we have a large and wonderful Hispanic population that is helping to build America,” Palin said on CNN’s State of the Union.
“On the other hand, you know, I think we can send a message and say: ‘You want to be in America? A, you better be here legally, or you’re out of here. B, when you’re here, let’s speak American.’ I mean, that’s just, that’s – let’s speak English,” added Palin, who was John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential race.
She did correct her mistake. American isn’t a language. English is. She actually may see no difference, but she is easily confused:
Palin told CNN she took Spanish classes in high school. “And I took French in high school. Shouldn’t have taken them both, because I got them all mixed up by the time I was graduating,” the former Alaska governor added.
Palin also said she might like to be appointed energy secretary if Trump wins the presidency.
“I think a lot about the Department of Energy, because energy is my baby, oil and gas and minerals, those things that God has dumped on this part of the Earth for mankind’s use, instead of relying on unfriendly foreign nations for us to import their resources,” Palin said.
“And if I were head of that,” she said of the department, “I would get rid of it.”
What? John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies and Western civilization at Columbia and tries to make sense of this:
Sarah Palin is hardly alone in her sense of some threat to the hegemony of English in the United States. You know the drill – Jeb Bush answers a question in comfortable Spanish, and Palin, after some perfunctory compliments that Bush’s conversational Spanish will be good for connecting to Latinos, gets in that here in the United States we need to “speak American.”
The problem with this kind of rhetoric is that it corresponds to no crisis. There hasn’t been any documented tendency for native-born Americans to be uncomfortable in English. Those born here to non-English speaking parents speak their parents’ language not as well – if at all – and just as often do not pass it on to their own children.
That’s why you’re not reading this in Slovak or Czech, by the way:
In Benjamin Franklin’s time, it was German that one heard as often as we hear Spanish these days, and even Franklin was given to wondering whether German was taking over. We chuckle at the notion now – one of the rare times that even the venerable Franklin was off-base.
Well, here we are 200 years later looking at immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries and worrying about English, a language that has had no problem taking over the whole world, but is apparently on the ropes in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.
There’s the real world:
Now, none of this is to say that we don’t hear plenty of people who are better at Spanish than English. They are people who immigrated as adults – humans aren’t as good at learning languages after their early teens. One will expect an accent, problems with idioms, little mistakes, and so on. However, their children will speak just like the rest of us.
Anyone who has problems hearing people who came here at 40 speaking shaky English needs to imagine how well they themselves would do learning Mandarin upon moving to China at 35, or even Spanish moving to Mexico at 25. Then, imagine someone there making comments to the media about how people like you need to talk “the way we do,” and bristling when public figures address you in English.
What it comes down to is this. We Americans think it’s really cool when someone can speak two languages. It’s great if they learned one in college or beyond. It’s even cool if they speak a language we have no particular feelings about natively — Hindi, Greek, Swahili, Albanian.
Yet somehow when someone speaks native Spanish and not-too-shabby English, or even when they grew up here and speak both languages just fine but use Spanish more with their family and friends, many Americans get uneasy. Somehow that doesn’t count as “bilingual” – that’s somebody “not speaking American.”
Spanish seems to be a special case:
The issue is not merely that some people get itchy worrying that someone speaking a foreign language might be talking about them. Notice, almost no one says that about Indian immigrants speaking Bengali or Koreans talking among themselves.
No, this worry seems to come up mainly when it is people speaking Spanish, and one can’t help detecting a reason. There is some sense that Spanish alone is a threat to English. But what in the world could constitute a threat to this language, here in the United States or anywhere on Earth? Linguists, anthropologists and politicians worldwide are much more concerned with English as a linguistic kudzu that eats up smaller languages relentlessly.
McWhorter sees the issue as this:
The conditions we are actually under include a degree of xenophobia against Latinos. “Speak American” is code for “Don’t be talking like those people.”
Just as Barack Obama has to keep it quiet that he once spoke Indonesian to avoid seeming “Muslim,” Jeb Bush is supposed to hold off on the Spanish thing in public, regardless of his wife being a native Spanish speaker, to respect the hegemony of “American” in our great land – in what once was billed admiringly as an immigrant nation.
These are, I’m afraid, dismissible insights indeed.
We do need to straighten out this immigration and assimilation thing, and here’s an idea a step beyond Jeb Bush’s relatively humane take on these issues. Consider this. Welcome all immigrants, all of them. The more the merrier. You want to build a better life for you and your family? Fine – here are some free English classes. You’ll need English – but keep your language and traditions and religion and all the rest – and your cuisine and music. We can learn from those. There’s always something new to learn – and you can apply for a driver’s license, to get around. And we’ll help you learn about the banking system and how everything works – so you can thrive and get a real job, and then pay taxes and all the rest.
You may even want to start a business. You can apply for a Small Business Administration loan. If you do well the economy will do well – and you may even hire other Americans. This is not a zero-sum game. This is building the economy, for everyone – and we’ll make it easy for you to become an actual citizen. No more hiding in the shadows in fear, marginalized. You want success, we’ll make that possible. That’ll be good for everyone.
What would we get in return? We’d get the most loyal citizens we’ve ever seen, who believe in America, because America believed in them. And the country would be even more diverse and far more prosperous, and much more interesting and a whole lot more fun. We can make this country great again, just not in the way Donald Trump imagines.
Of course that’s a dismissible insight. Too many people have a problem with the big wide world, even when it’s all around them.