Arnold, speak English, please

Linda Chavez's picture

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deserves two cheers for his comments to Hispanic journalists last week that Hispanics should “turn off the Spanish television set. It’s that simple. You’ve got to learn English.” But I’m holding back on the third cheer, in part because the governor hasn’t always followed his own advice.

Like most politicians, Schwarzenegger is quick to embrace English as the national language and hint that Hispanics aren’t learning it fast enough, but he is also eager to habla Español when election-time rolls around.

In his re-election bid last year, the governor not only ran ads in Spanish but was interviewed frequently on Spanish-language television and radio. He was also happy to take more than $4 million since 2003 in contributions to his political causes from former Univision chairman A. Jerrold Perenchio, who made his fortune airing soap operas and game shows in Spanish.

And, if you want to practice your Spanish skills, a good place to start might be listening to the governor’s weekly radio address in Spanish or signing on to his website “Arnold Schwarzenegger: El Gobernador del Pueblo” (

Schwarzenegger is not alone in this practice. Presidential aspirant Mitt Romney may be talking tough on immigration these days (though not when he was governor of Massachusetts), but he’s also airing Spanish-language ads in states with large Hispanic populations.

As I’ve argued for decades, such ads don’t reach most Hispanic voters — who are predominantly U.S.-born and prefer to get their news in English.

But the hypocrisy doesn’t end here. In 2006, when Republicans were still in control of both houses of Congress, they couldn’t muster enough votes in their own ranks to drop a requirement for bilingual ballots from the Voting Rights Act, which was up for extension. Rep. James “No Amnesty” Sensenbrenner, then chairman of the Judiciary Committee, argued that bilingual ballots facilitate “the participation of language minority citizens in the political process.” Nonsense.

When I testified against the bilingual ballots measure — as I have each time it has come up for extension — I was treated by my fellow Republicans as the skunk at the tea party. They didn’t want to hear evidence that the overwhelming majority of Hispanics who are eligible to vote speak, read and write English.

Indeed, for those who are third-generation Americans, three out of four can’t speak Spanish at all. The relatively few voters who need language assistance could be accommodated by allowing them to take translations into the polling booth, to have family members help them or to cast absentee ballots so that they could get translation assistance at home.

Bilingual ballots are a waste of money, send a mixed signal to new citizens that it isn’t necessary to learn English, and cause resentment and ill-will among other Americans.

But my reservation of a third cheer for Arnold isn’t solely based on the hypocrisy factor. The governor also seems not to recognize that what Spanish-speaking newcomers are going through today in their transition to English is nearly identical to what every group has encountered at periods of high immigration over the last 200 years.

Arnold may not have met many German speakers when he came to California in 1968, but if he’d arrived 100 years earlier, he’d have been awash in German-language newspapers, German-language theater, German civic associations, and his children likely would have attended German bilingual schools.

As Richard Alba and Victor Nee point out in their authoritative work, “Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration”: “German immigrants sometimes thought of themselves as recreating a separate German cultural sphere in the United States, and numerous towns where they settled were given German names (such as King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and Frankfort, Kentucky.). At a relatively late point in American history, the great majority of the foreign-language press was published in German. ... [T]he German language was unusually tenacious across the generations, supported by bilingual public education in many states.”

Even today, nearly 1.4 million Americans still speak German at home; it is the fourth most popular foreign language spoken in the U.S. after Spanish, Chinese and French.

The real question for Hispanic immigrants is, will they learn English over time, as the Germans, Italians, Poles and others did before them?

The evidence, based on studies of Hispanic immigrants’ children and grandchildren, suggests they will. But it might help if policymakers like Schwarzenegger didn’t speak out of both sides of their mouth on this issue.

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