Spanish Lesson

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

Newt Gingrich goes into one of his deep-think riffs on assimilation for immigrants, but he probably shouldn't have implied that anything but English is "the language of living in a ghetto."

So he does penance on YouTube, apologizing and explaining in -- what else? -- grammatically correct Spanish, albeit with a terminally Anglo accent. Turns out he's a closet Spanish geek, getting tutored three times a week, while he considers a run for president.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney takes his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination to Miami, where he declares, "¡Patria o muerte -- venceremos!" --"Fatherland or death -- we shall overcome!"

The ethnic cliches of yore no longer cut it -- a "Buenos días" here, a "¡Sí se puede!" there. Many of the 2008 presidential campaigns are communicating more ambitiously, with varying degrees of fluency -- whether or not they support an amendment to the immigration bill to make English the national language, which the Senate is poised to vote on this week.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who may yet launch a bid, goes to Mexico and reveals his inner Latino, speaking Spanish every chance he gets. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announces his presidential bid in Los Angeles, invoking the language of his Mexican mother, trying to let Hispanics know he's Hispanic, but not so Hispanic that he can't be a president to everyone. Sen. Chris Dodd, fine Connecticut Yankee, former Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, finds himself discoursing in Spanish in those teeming border states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Off the campaign trail, on Capitol Hill, tune your ears to the new frequency. It's no longer just the cafeteria staff chattering in Spanish. At 7:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays is Spanish class for a half-dozen Democratic House members. The immigration debate has brought advocates on both sides of the issue who are comfortable in both languages. You see pink, sweating gringo faces in reception rooms off the Senate floor suddenly burst into staccato Spanish.

All this Spanish makes politicians nervous: An identical legislative amendment to uphold English passed easily last year. Yet they press on, rolling their r-r-r-r's, auditioning to follow Dodd's and Sen. Barack Obama's example in delivering the weekly Hispanic Radio Address,

What's going on here? Let's translate.

The fact is, the politics of language is one thing, and the language of politics is another. Language is both a tool and a value.

The politics of language requires a politician to honor that sacred and hard-to-define concept, the "American identity." The language of politics is about getting votes -- and pragmatically accepting that every day, including Election Day, the American identity speaks in many tongues.

Reconciling the two means operating like those ubiquitous recorded phone prompts: "Press 1 to continue in English. Oprima el 2 para continuar en español."

Coming out strongly and courageously in favor of English is a way of flashing a high-sign to a certain segment of the electorate. It's a linguistic nod-and-a-wink to those who fear America's soul is imperiled by the rise of a population speaking, thinking, dreaming in another language. Can you be a real American and speak Spanish? Bilingual Canada is held up as a warning.

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