Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich made a speech to the National Federation of Republican Women March 31, in which he sharply criticized requirements for printing voting ballots in multiple languages, and likened bilingual education programs with “the language of living in a ghetto.” Gingrich has also advocated in the past for making English the United States’ official language as a response to growing numbers of Spanish speaking immigrants in the United States. Nevertheless, while speaking English is undoubtedly central to mainstream American identity and an important business skill, Gingrich’s comments fail to acknowledge the legal rights that immigrants maintain while struggling to learn a second language, as well as the complexity of American cultural assimilation.
According to a stipulation in the 1975 Voting Rights Act, ballots are required to be written in other languages in districts where upwards of 5 percent of eligible voters are not fluent in English. While this act was likely primarily crafted with Jim Crow in mind, the essence of the legislation is to ensure that American citizens’ right to vote is protected. Fluency in English, like socioeconomic status or race, should not factor into a citizen’s sacred right to vote. Accordingly, immigrants and their children who may be struggling to learn English should not be disenfranchised in the process.
Education is a fundamental to achieving the type of upward socioeconomic mobility that many immigrants dream of when moving to the United States. Gingrich is correct in his assessment that fluency in English, as the United States’ dominant language, is a critical skill for success in contemporary America. However, bilingual education is important to ensure that students who are not yet fluent in English continue to receive an education while they work to improve their language skills. Notably, bilingual education must not take the place of English education, but rather serve as a short-term support structure to help ease student’s transition into an English-speaking society.
The English language has factored prominently into the construction of the American national identity, and immigrant groups have long prided themselves on maintaining their own cultural traditions, while at the same time learning English to access greater socioeconomic opportunities and to integrate more deeply into American society. Ethnic diversity should be embraced as a central aspect of the American culture, and enshrining English as the “official” American language would be largely a symbolic measure without much practical merit.