Want to pursue happiness? Learn English
Los Angeles Times
April 7, 2007
I'VE BEEN TAKING lessons to learn Spanish for a while now, and it's given me a
new understanding of how difficult it is to learn a new language. And there's no
question that if I lived in a Spanish-speaking country and had to study and work
and shop in Spanish as I struggled to learn the language, the challenges would
be greater. But there's also no doubt that the rewards would be greater too.
Mastering the language of a country opens doors of opportunity, plain and
In the United States, English is by no means our only language, but it is the
language of economic success and upward mobility. More important, it is the
language of our national unity and political discourse. And just as opportunity
is the birthright of all native-born Americans, it becomes the inheritance of
all new Americans. But this is nothing more than a nice sentiment if we don't do
all we can to encourage and help new Americans learn English.
Among the ways we can do this as quickly as possible is to replace bilingual
education programs in our public schools with intensive English instruction and
abolish the federal mandates requiring multilingual ballots and government
Passions sometimes run high when the topic is English. I learned that firsthand
last weekend because of a poor choice of words when talking about this subject.
That's understandable. After all, there are 31 million Spanish speakers in the
United States. There are also millions of Americans whose first language is
Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Hindi or Farsi, to name just a few. They are all
justifiably proud of their language and their cultural heritage.
Still, it's important that we not allow passion to rule the debate. Too often,
sincere expressions of support for English as our unifying language are
interpreted as a lack of support for welcoming and respecting new Americans. For
example, those who support "English-first" are often mistakenly portrayed as
supporters of "English-only." English-first supporters believe that English
should be the official language of the government but that other languages are
fine in communities and commerce. In contrast, English-only advocates want to
outlaw all languages other than English.
Clearly, these two positions are very different. Promoting English-first is not
— and should not be — disrespectful of other languages. In fact, supporting
English instruction for immigrants demonstrates our confidence in their ability
to pursue happiness here and contribute to their families, communities and new
As a part of any comprehensive immigration reform, we should renew our
commitment to making sure that all new immigrants have the opportunity to learn
English. In public schools, children should have intensive English instruction
rather than bilingual classes. For adults, we can adopt something similar to a
program Israel has for its new immigrants. There, every newresident is entitled
to 500 hours of intensive Hebrewlanguage instruction paid for by the government.
And along with intensive English language instruction, they could receive U.S.
history and civics training.
Equally important, we must abolish federal rules requiring that government
documents — including ballots — be printed in multiple languages. These
multilingual documents discourage immigrants from learning English as rapidly as
possible, limitingtheir ability to engage in a truly common political culture.
Rather than expanding opportunities for new Americans, these mandates help limit
We must never lose sight of the self-evident truths affirmed at our founding:
that we are all created equal — citizen and noncitizen alike — and that we are
each endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If we are to live out these truths, new
immigrants deserve our respect, not our condescension. They deserve the
opportunity to pursue happiness in the U.S. that comes with speaking English.
Meanwhile, I'm going to keep working on my Spanish. It's hard, but I'm making
progress — poco a poco.
Immigrants deserve the government's strongest effort to give them opportunities
to acquire English. By Newt Gingrich, NEWT GINGRICH, House speaker from1995 to
1999, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of
"Winning theFuture: A 21st Century Contract with America."