To Speak Or Not To Speak.. Spanish

Does speaking English and Spanish fluently make you less American? Is bilingualism a hindrance to the American dream?

As the nation’s Latino population continues to surge and the 2012 electoral season intensifies, expect more talk on both sides of the perennial question: What language is spoken here?

Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich have both pledged to make English the official language of the United States. Bachmann stood on a chair at a packed Des Moines, Iowa, campaign event recently and repeated her English-only promise to cheers and applause.

Mitt Romney and Bachman have mispronounced the Yiddish word “chutzpah” at different events but don’t expect to hear its rough Spanish equivalent “atrevimiento” from the mouths of the GOP candidates.

Gingrich’s English-only pledge comes a time when the candidate is seeking the crucial Latino vote with his own Spanish-language Twitter account, and a Spanish-language campaign website called “Newt Presidente.”

In one Spanish-language post, the campaign said there is no contradiction between his English-only plan and his use of the Spanish-language to reach potential voters and donors. The headline of the Spanish-language post: “Newt in favor of English... and of Spanish.”

Studies have shown that English-only could hurt Latino graduation rates, according to a 2010 poll by the Associated Press and Univision that was conducted in connection with Stanford University, The Huffington Post reported:

The findings also raise questions about whether English-immersion does more to assimilate or isolate -- a heated debate that has divided states, academics and even the U.S. Supreme Court. Arizona recently ordered its schools to remove teachers with heavy foreign accents from English-language instruction, while the Obama administration is seeking to push more multilingual teaching in K-12 classrooms.

“The language barrier is still a serious risk factor for Hispanics,” said Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor emeritus of education who helped analyze the survey. Even with many schools replacing Spanish with English in classrooms, for a student evaluated as learning English, “the odds of completing high school, and particularly college, significantly drops.”

At Coral Way Elementary, “bilerate” education has been embraced, with the test scores of the 1,500 mostly low-income students among the highest in the city, NPR reported:

There are about 440 public bilingual immersion schools across the country, up from only a handful in the 1970s. A growing number today teach Mandarin and French, not just Spanish.

But in some states — California, Arizona, Colorado and Massachusetts — bilingual immersion programs are banned because a majority of voters don't think children can learn proper English and hold on to a foreign language and culture at the same time.
It’s an issue that gets caught up in the angry debate over illegal immigration, especially from Spanish-speaking countries. Even in Miami, when Rosa de La O tells people her kids attend a bilingual school, some always ask, “Are we loyal? Are we not? Is a child is going to absorb that?” she says.

Parents like de La O say being fluent in English and Spanish does not make you less of an American. It just creates more pathways to the American dream.