(Submitted in response to Dick Feagler's Plain Dealer May 6, 2001 commentary “Wrong Address, Mr. President”)
May 8, 2001
Dick Feagler’s May 6, 2001 commentary “Wrong address, Mr. President” is one of the most disturbing columns I have ever read. Mr. Feagler’s comments are ill informed and border on being racist.
While lamenting the fact that President Bush delivered his Saturday radio address in both English and Spanish, he never mentioned the content of the speeches. They were delivered on May 5 (or Cinco de Mayo) and were specifically targeted for Mexican-American and Mexican audiences, not Hispanics in general. The President emphasized his free trade agenda and underlined the fact that Mexican President Vicente Fox will be the guest of honor at his first State Dinner. This topic makes the addition of a Spanish address quite logical.
If, as Mr. Feagler suggests, Bush was trying “to prove he’s not as dumb as the late-show clowns claim he is by showing off a second language,” his delivery of the Spanish address was far from impressive and would do little to silence such criticism. Even the Press Secretary’s transcript of his English address contained errors such as “quatro (sic) de Mayo.” The “profound” symbolism of these speeches is not “un-American,” but rather very American. American, after all, refers to over 20 nations on two continents in the Western Hemisphere. This is why Spanish has the adjective estadounidense and French uses états-unien to describe people or things from the United States.
In fact, the use of a language other than English does not even “fly in the face of [United States] history.” Our country is probably more monolingual now than it has ever been. The 1990 U. S. Census reports that 86 percent of the population speaks “only English” at home. This in turn must mean that 14 percent speak some other language at home. But instead of labeling this group as “non-English speaking” (as did the 1995 World Almanac), there is another possible (and ultimately more accurate) scenario: 14 percent speak some other language at home in addition to English. The census does in fact go on to show that nearly 80 percent of this group (over 25 million people) speaks English “well” or “very well.” All in all, over 94 percent of the population speaks English “very well” and 97 percent speak English at least “well.” Less than 1 percent (1.8 million) answered “not at all.”
Mr. Feagler decries the fact that “we [I assume he means United States citizens or what he refers to as ‘real’ Americans] don’t speak [English] well… [and] the quality of literate discourse, on the street, in high schools, even on college campuses, has fallen off.” Paradoxically, the solution to this problem may be the increased study of languages other than English (so-called foreign languages). Studies have shown that students who study another language obtain higher scores on English sections of standardized tests than other students. As a high school teacher of modern languages, I spend quite a bit of time teaching the concepts of gender, case, conjugation, concordance, and participles as well as how to distinguish a coordinating conjunction from a demonstrative adjective.
We all know that English is our national language. But what is there to fear in its coexistence with other tongues given the increased dominance of English? Our founding fathers protected our right to free speech while at the same time wisely choosing not to adopt an official language. The “real America” should be a place that encourages acceptance and understanding instead of spreading xenophobia and mistrust.
To counter the Texan Cinco de Mayo celebrations with mariachi music and Mexican food described by President Bush, should we serve only ribs and chicken at our wholly American Fourth of July cookouts? Grilled chicken sandwiches would have to be the order of the day because hamburgers and frankfurters sound downright un-American. What should we do about condiments? Catsup, relish, lettuce, and tomatoes are fine choices and cheese is okay, but only if it is not Swiss, Provolone, or Muenster. No one is sure what to think about mayonnaise. To be on the safe side, you had better opt for regular yellow mustard. Naturally, Grey Poupon would be out of the question