April 03, 2007

Gingrich's "ghetto" talk

A Mar. 31 AP article about a speech by Newt Gingrich before the the National Federation of Republican Women has circulated widely over the past few days. The opening paragraph reads:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich equated bilingual education Saturday with "the language of living in a ghetto" and mocked requirements that ballots be printed in multiple languages.

The article ran in newspapers under such headlines as "Gingrich likens bilingual ed to 'ghetto'-speak" (Houston Chronicle) and "Gingrich: Bilingual Classes Teach 'Ghetto' Language" (Washington Post). Hispanic Education Coalition co-chair Peter Zamora is quoted by the AP as saying, "The tone of his comments were very hateful. Spanish is spoken by many individuals who do not live in the ghetto." Bloggers followed suit, from political news blogs like The Swamp ("Gingrich: Spanish a 'ghetto' language") to linguablogs like Polyglot Conspiracy ("Spanish is indeed spoken by many individuals who do not live in the ghetto"). I'm no fan of Gingrich or his alarmist views on American bilingualism, but I think he might be getting a bad rap for his admittedly unfortunate use of the word ghetto.

Here's the full quote as it appears in the AP article:

"The American people believe English should be the official language of the government. ... We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto." [Video available here.]

Anyone familiar with the rhetoric of the English-only movement ought to recognize that Gingrich is referring to the linguistic ghettos that bilingual education supposedly helps to perpetuate. In fact, Gingrich spoke more extensively about such ghettos last January in a press conference sponsored by the lobbying group ProEnglish:

"Immigrant parents want their children to compete in the core American economic system and to have the highest possible income. That inherently requires mastering English. Those people who would trap immigrants into linguistic ghettos ... are in fact denying them the opportunity to pursue happiness." (Cox News Service, Jan. 25, 2007)

This is a common talking point in the English-only crowd. The ProEnglish website elaborates on the theme, raising the spectre of new linguistic ghettos that would mirror the immigrant ghettos of the early 20th century:

This multilingualism is causing a growing underclass, which is segregated and walled off into linguistic ghettos. A century ago such immigrant ghettos were marked by extreme poverty, 80-hour workweeks and child labor. As the industrial revolution matured, immigrants discovered that language skills were the key to entering the emerging "middle class." This, coupled with mandatory public education and reduced immigration, resulted in the successful assimilation of ethnic communities into American society.

The "linguistic ghetto" argument against government-sponsored bilingualism goes back at least a few decades. The earliest relevant citation I've found actually relates to bilingual policies in Canada, not the U.S. The Dec. 28, 1969 New York Times quotes conservative leader Robert L. Stanfield warning of the "linguistic ghettos" that would be created by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's language policy. Stanfield was specifically complaining about plans for French-only military units. Trudeau responded, "Certainly, it would be a false description to call these units ghettos."

In the United States, talk of "linguistic ghettos" gathered steam in the mid-'80s, when Congress was considering "official English" legislation (a lobbying effort that finally saw some success last year). Sen. Steven Symms (R-Id.) was one major supporter:

"Diversity without a common language is separatism," [Symms] said. He pointed to the rapid growth of people speaking a minority language, which is expected to double the rate of growth of English-speaking people over the next 15 years.
"This could create vast linguistic ghettos in many U.S. cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, where English is virtually unknown in some areas. Without a common tongue, the United States faces the prospect of Balkanization and linguistic separatism." (Globe and Mail, June 13, 1984)

Two years later, the "ghettoization" drum was beaten by S.I. Hayakawa, who had recently retired from the U.S. Senate and was serving as honorary chairman of the group U.S. English:

Q. You see the spread of languages other than English as a threat to the social cohesiveness of the country?
A. Yes, I must say I do. That is, this encouragement of linguistic ghettos of one kind or another. Actually, the tendency of immigrants is within one or two generations to cease isolating themselves in ghettos because they speak English well enough. But if the tendency to cluster in isolated groups continues, then you're going to have not only the children of immigrants but the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants continuing in another language and therefore denying themselves the full opportunities of American life. (New York Times, Oct. 26, 1986)

Gingrich's comments are clearly of a piece with these earlier proponents of English-only policies. You may or may not agree with this line of argumentation (I certainly don't), but it's a tad unfair to accuse Gingrich of equating bilingual education, or Spanish in particular, with "ghetto language." The problem is really of Gingrich's own creation, however, since he couched the old "linguistic ghetto" argument in the infelicitous phrase, "the language of living in a ghetto." That encouraged a reading of ghetto in the specific sense (OED: "a quarter in a city, esp. a thickly populated slum area, inhabited by a minority group or groups, usu. as a result of economic or social pressures") rather than the generic sense (OED: "an isolated or segregated group, community, or area"). Thus, Gingrich's "language of living in a ghetto" ended up (mis)paraphrased as "the language of the ghetto," with the language presumed to be Spanish.

I'm not particularly eager to rally to Gingrich's defense, because I still feel that the use of the term "(linguistic) ghetto" by English-only advocates is intended to evoke the 'urban slum' sense, at least implicitly (and sometimes explicitly, as in the quote from the ProEnglish site above). It's part of an arsenal of scare tactics with little or no empirical basis in the social realities of bilingualism. Still, that's a far cry from calling Spanish "the language of the ghetto," which Gingrich clearly did not do.

[Update, 4/4/07: As reported by Mr. Verb, Gingrich now claims that he was making an allusion to the original Jewish ghettos of Europe. ThinkProgress has his not terribly convincing explanation, and Jeffrey Feldman points out Gingrich's historical inaccuracies.]

[Update, 4/5/07: Gingrich admits — in Spanish and English — to having used a poor choice of words.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 3, 2007 12:20 AM