Weighing pros and cons of bilingualism

Bilingualism is smart politics, but we should also respect that the heartfelt desire of most new immigrants is to master English.

President Bush recently gave his Saturday radio address in both English and Spanish. The bilingual performance marked Cinco de Mayo, the popular Mexican holiday, and in the process discombobulated the political opposition. Democrats were sent scurrying for an equal-time Spanish-language response to accompany that of House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.

The word from the White House and congressional Democrats is that the bilingual broadcasts will become a standard fixture. The decision clearly responds to the 2000 Census finding that Hispanics are now the nation’s fastest growing minority group.

There has been little public reaction to the dual-language politicking. As governor of Texas and during his campaign for the presidency, Bush frequently courted the Hispanic vote by speaking Spanish. He continues the practice when privately addressing Hispanic groups visiting the White House.

The presidential bilingualism is smart politics and bears witness to Bush’s conviction that the country should reach out and embrace its minority groups. But there is a fine line that must be walked when it comes to bilingualism.

By law, immigrants seeking citizenship must “demonstrate an understanding of English, including an ability to read, write and speak words in ordinary English.” That the law is sometimes honored in the breach is evidenced by bilingual ballots.

While bilingual ballots may go too far in relieving immigrants of a clear obligation of citizenship, such things as bilingual drivers’ manuals or directories of social services are necessary tools toward integration into mainstream society — especially in communities such as Indianapolis where waiting lists exist for English classes.

In his many columns on immigration issues, Ruben Navarrette reminds us that the heart-felt desire of most immigrants is to learn English quickly, but they are sometimes thwarted by bilingual programs devised by well-intended policymakers. On May 18, he reported on a parental rebellion at a downtown Los Angeles school led by Latino immigrants who wanted English immersion for their children, not bilingual classes.

The exuberance of Cinco de Mayo and other such celebrations testifies to a wholesome and admirable pride in ethnic roots and traditions. But ethnicity is a personal thing, not a national attribute. Americans share common beliefs, a common destiny and, yes, a common language.

In reaching out to our growing Hispanic population, we should encourage their ethnic pride, but we should be just as encouraging of their efforts to master our common language.

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