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Jewish World Review May 11, 2001 / 18 Iyar, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Losing the common tongue -- THE Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo took place last weekend, and President Bush played it up big. On Friday he hosted a White House party for 200 that featured mariachi music, Mexican food, and folklorica dancing. The master of ceremonies was Don Francisco, host of Univision's popular Saturday-night variety show, "Sabado Gigante." Bush seasoned his own remarks with a little Spanish, as he usually does when speaking to Hispanic audiences. "Mi Casa Blanca," he told the crowd, "es su Casa Blanca."

In his weekly radio address the next day, the president hailed Cinco de Mayo as "a day for special pride and remembrance" and celebrated the strong Mexican flavor of his home state. "In Texas, it's in the air you breath," Bush said. "Hispanic life, Hispanic culture and Hispanic values are inseparable from the life of our state." Then, in a presidential first, he recorded his address again -- in Spanish. "La cultura y los valores hispanos son inseparables de la vida en Texas."

It was all perfectly in keeping with the American political tradition of courting ethnic minorities -- akin to Bill Clinton celebrating Eid-al-Fitr in a White House ceremony with Arab Americans, or Ronald Reagan, during a visit to Boston, dropping by the Eire Pub in Dorchester for a glass of Ballantine's Ale. There is nothing wrong with such gestures; they are one of the ways in which our democracy honors the extraordinary array of cultures that feed the national melting pot.

But Bush's bow to Mexican-Americans didn't end with Cinco de Mayo. He intends to deliver a radio address in Spanish every week. Not to be outdone, Richard Gephardt, the House minority leader, says the Democrats will respond with their own weekly Spanish broadcast.

This is not a good thing. American Hispanics do not need more encouragement not to master English. Already millions of them live in linguistic barrios, enclaves in which the common language of the United States -- the language in which America's affairs have been conducted for 300 years -- is simply never heard.

"For many immigrants, learning English is no longer essential," ABC's Chris Bury reported on March 2 in his introduction to a startling "Nightline" program on the disappearance of English in large swaths of the country. "In many American cities, it is quite commonplace to get up, go to work, come home, flip on the TV, or go out to a movie without hearing a single word of English.... It's estimated that half of this country's 32 million Hispanics now get all of their news from Spanish language, radio, television, and newspapers."

Of course there have always been neighborhoods in American cities -- the Little Italys, the Lower East Sides, the Chinatowns -- where immigrants clustered and communicated in their native language. But even the residents of these districts would have agreed, up until very recently, that part of good citizenship was the ability to speak English -- and that English was indispensable to full membership in American society.

Generation in, generation out, newcomers made it a priority to absorb the language of their new home. As they wrestled with its unfamiliar idioms and struggled with its cockamamy orthography, it would never have occurred to them to claim that the pressure they felt to learn English was evidence of illegal discrimination -- or to insist that merchants, employers, and the government accommodate their linguistic deficit -- or to demand that their children not be educated in the American tongue.

Things, to put it mildly, have changed. In many parts of the nation today, it is normal for ballots to be printed in multiple languages and for driver's licenses to be issued even to applicants who cannot read English. Public schools routinely segregate students from immigrant households into "bilingual" classes that keep them from learning English quickly.

An employer who asks his workers to speak English can now expect to be sued for "language discrimination." In April, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission forced a small Catholic college in San Antonio to pay $2.4 million to settle a suit brought on behalf of housekeepers who disliked the school's English-on-the-job policy.

Meanwhile, there is a growing demand that foreign-language assistance be provided by law to any non-English-speaker who requests it. Last summer, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13166, ordering all government agencies to make their services available in any language used by anyone not proficient in English. That is a staggering mandate: More than 300 languages are spoken in this country.

The potential result of all this -- the loss of a common American tongue -- would be disastrous. Among Hispanics, that loss is already underway. In a 2000 Yankelovich poll, 53 percent of Hispanic households said they prefer to use Spanish at all times, up from 44 percent in 1997. Only 64 percent said they care about fitting in to American society, compared with 72 percent in 1997.

This is a deeply disquieting trend, and President Bush should be doing everything he can to reverse it. (He could, for a start, rescind Clinton's misguided executive order.) Delivering a weekly radio address in Spanish, by contrast, will signal American Hispanics that a command of English isn't that important after all. It will give a presidential imprimatur to those who value cultural separatism above the American tradition of assimilation. It will make these United States a little less united. It will send a divisive, discordant message -- and it isn't only Hispanics who will hear it.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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