Time to Put English First

One of the most frequent complaints I hear when I’m out traveling and speaking to groups is the lack of importance given to English as the language of success in the United States today. Whether it’s the government’s printing election ballots in other languages or bilingual education, Americans are concerned about the future of English as a unifying bond in our country.

Of course, don’t expect to hear a lot of discussion of this topic in Washington. When was the last time you heard a politician talking about the fact that the Rasmussen poll reported that support for English as the official language was 85 percent? Or that the Zogby poll had it at 84 percent? With overwhelming public support like this, you would expect that promotion of English to be on the agenda of every elected official. But it’s not. Instead, talking about English as a unifying bond — and about learning English as the essential precondition for success in America — is taboo. Why? Because the left labels anyone who talks about the importance of learning English as bigoted against immigrants.

Not ‘English Only.’ English First.

When the left and the elite media are done with it, any expression of support for emphasizing the importance of English is turned into a lack of support for welcoming new Americans. Those who support "English first" — that is, those who believe that English should be the language of government, but other languages are perfectly fine in communities and commerce — are portrayed routinely as supporters of "English only" — that is, advocates of outlawing all languages other than English.

But historically, nothing could be further from the truth. English is not and never has been the only language in America. My wife’s grandmother came to the United States as a young woman speaking only Polish. She learned English quickly, but her children grew up speaking both Polish and English.

For much of our history, the U.S. has absorbed waves of immigrants by helping newcomers assimilate into our culture. After all, there’s no such thing as a genetic U.S. citizen. To become an American means becoming an American in values, culture and historic understanding.

Our one nation under God grows and prospers by embracing and welcoming the newly arrived and helping them to adjust properly.

Most Americans support continuing this welcoming tradition. But to do so successfully, we have to ensure that English remains our language of government and public discourse. In fact, to be pro-English and pro-assimilation into American culture is to be pro-legal immigration. If we fail to properly assimilate newcomers into the United States, the American people won’t long support continuing immigration.

Australia Switches From Multiculturalism to Citizenship

You don’t have to look far to see other countries who have experimented with failing to assimilate their immigrants and lived to regret it.

The Canadian government is currently taking another look at its policy of allowing dual citizenship for immigrants.

In Australia, they recently renamed their Ministry for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to the Ministry for Immigration and Citizenship. What’s in a name change? Plenty. The change marks a shift by the Australians from a policy of government enforced multiculturalism — encouraging immigrants to cluster in the same communities and schools and retain the culture of their old countries — to a policy of assimilation. The reason for the change wasn’t politics, it was profoundly practical. Their policy of multiculturalism had led to the creation of a closed and violent ghetto of Lebanese Muslims.

Instead of making Australia a more culturally rich and vibrant place, failing to assimilate new immigrants had the opposite effect and made the country a more violent place. Congratulations to the Howard government for having the courage to believe in their Australian cultural values and national identity.

English is the Language of American Success and Cultural Identity

We need a similar kind of courage here in America.

English is the language of American success and provides the basis for American cultural unity.

As a part of any comprehensive immigration reform, we should renew our commitment to our cultural values by teaching legal immigrants to speak and read the English language, educating them about U.S. citizenship based upon U.S. history and giving them an understanding of the Founding Fathers and the core values of American civilization. We should continue to encourage those who want to become U.S. citizens, but it is important that we grant citizenship to only those individuals who also want to embrace and assimilate into the culture of the United States.

Action Agenda to Promote the English Language

What can we do to make English the language of government and civic discourse? Three action items top the list:

  1. President Bush should end multilingualism in federal documents. The requirement that federal documents be printed in different languages was created by executive order. President Bush should repeal this executive order.
  2. Make English the language of U.S. citizenship. Return to English language ballots, to a focus on English language literacy as a prerequisite of citizenship, and to an insistence that U.S. dual citizens vote only in the United States and give up voting in their birth nations. These were principles widely understood and accepted for most of American history, and they enabled us to absorb millions of immigrants and assimilate them and their children into an American civilization.
  3. Replace bilingual education with intensive English instruction. We should have a National Program for Intensive English Instruction that would provide highly intensive English and U.S. history and civics training for new immigrants so that they can have the practical skills to become successful U.S. citizens.

It’s the Right Thing to Do.

We can be dramatically more successful in helping those who want to embrace American values and culture, and become citizens, to assimilate far more effectively. As we work to reform our immigration policies, especially citizenship reform measures, we must never lose sight of the self-evident truths affirmed at our founding. That we are all created equal — citizen and non-citizen alike — because we recognize that we are all endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If we are to live out these truths, then we must recognize that every person has an inherent human dignity that must be respected. And that these truths morally bind us to create a workable immigration solution — founded upon English as the official language of government and patriotic integration as the fundamental model of citizenship for new Americans.

Your friend,

Newt Gingrich

P.S. – I have two events coming up in New York City I want to make sure you have the opportunity to attend. This Thursday, February 15, I will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y and signing copies of my book, Rediscovering God in America. Then, on February 28, I will be back in New York City at historic Cooper Union for what promises to be a lively exchange of ideas with former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. I hope you can make plans to join me.