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Bill Richardson’s Spanish Acceptance Speech

Yesterday, I listened to President-elect Obama’s nomination of Bill Richardson as Commerce Secretary.  Since I was just listening and wasn’t watching what was going on, I was very focused on the words used by both men and what was behind them.  First, I was struck by how casual the President-elect has become when talking with the media – something I like a lot.  Second, I thought Richardson gave a relatively content-free acceptance – not a big deal since it was clearly Barack’s show.  Third and, perhaps the words with the biggest impact for me, were those used by Richardson when he repeated his acceptance statement in Spanish.  Yes, Spanish.  My jaw literally dropped open.

Before the accusations of prejudice and racism fly, let me say that I think  President-elect Obama’s choice of Bill Richardson as Commerce Secretary is a good one.  There are few people around who have the combination of intelligence and broad experience that Richardson brings to the Cabinet.  Having been a cabinet member before (Energy) as well as a governor, congressman and Ambassador to the UN is one seriously broad set of skills and, more importantly, a boatload of wisdom to have in the new White House. 

My issue with Richardson’s use of Spanish has nothing to do with Richardson, the Cabinet role or his qualifications.  It’s that while giving his statement in English and Spanish might seem politically correct, at its best it is simple pandering to the Latino community and, at its worst, it’s completely divisive.  Not merging, but further separating the solely English-speaking community and solely Spanish-speaking community.

I can only hope that Richardson’s use of Spanish was aimed more at Latin American and Caribbean countries, sending a message about his support of an all-hemisphere-free-trade league, than it was at American citizens who only speak Spanish.

I think it would be great if every language on the planet were routinely spoken in the US, but there has to be one common language which, when used, is universally understood.  We have a perfect example of what happens when this is not the case just north of the US border in Quebec where the division between French and English speakers has caused a huge rift and constant turmoil in the Canadian province.

A good friend of mine, a native of Quebec now a US citizen says of where he grew up –

  • Half the people don’t talk to each other.
  • In practice, having two languages means institutionalizing a majority and minority, and in the long run the minority it is protecting gets disadvantaged.
  • Successful societies have as much in common as possible, and language is one of the biggest barriers to sharing a culture.

No, the US does not have an official language.  30 states do have “official English” laws, though, that state, at a minimum, that government business and records shall be conducted and recorded solely in English,  But these laws do not mean English only.  Nor should they.

If we don’t have a single language for public communication and governance, where do we stop?  Why stop at English and Spanish?  How about Chinese, Thai and Russian?  Won’t we be leaving those in this country who speak those languages exclusively out if we don’t set up some UN-style translation system where all communication, especially governmental and safety communication is broadcast in every language?  What about the street sign that states “SLOW – deaf child playing?”  We’re gonna need bigger signs for all the languages we need to cover.

Since this has turned into a rant, I’ll state again that I think it would be great if more, not fewer languages were spoken in the US.  There are too few American citizens who only know English and that’s a shame.  By not choosing a single, common language however, where English is the logical choice because it’s already spoken by the majority and it’s the most ubiquitous language in the world, we are setting ourselves up to live in a divided society.  It’s simply a fallacy to think that adopting multiple languages will bring people together.  It’s much more likely to split us apart.

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 December 4th, 2008  
 Will  
 Misc Thoughts  
   
 25 Comments

25 Responses to Bill Richardson’s Spanish Acceptance Speech

  1. Sorry Will, I have to disagree on this one. Maybe living down here in Florida, I take for granted the Spanish verisons. My kids were learning Spanish in kindergarten (BTW, they start Mandarin in 4th grade, in addition to Hebrew is Hebrew school). I think part of Richardson speaking to the Latino community was pride in the fact that “one of their own” was in a place of power. As if Barak himself was not enough to testify of breaking down racial stereotypes. The fact is, English is the de facto language of the realm, but there are millions of Spanish speaking persons who need to be included in the equation. It is the fastest growing minority in the land and soon to be the biggest. It was a big reason that Obama was able to win western states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. This is the new political reality that our demographics dictate. I think Bill Richardson (who I am a big fan of BTW) was “paying back” those who delivered for the new administration.

  2. Sorry Will, I have to disagree on this one. Maybe living down here in Florida, I take for granted the Spanish verisons. My kids were learning Spanish in kindergarten (BTW, they start Mandarin in 4th grade, in addition to Hebrew is Hebrew school). I think part of Richardson speaking to the Latino community was pride in the fact that “one of their own” was in a place of power. As if Barak himself was not enough to testify of breaking down racial stereotypes. The fact is, English is the de facto language of the realm, but there are millions of Spanish speaking persons who need to be included in the equation. It is the fastest growing minority in the land and soon to be the biggest. It was a big reason that Obama was able to win western states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. This is the new political reality that our demographics dictate. I think Bill Richardson (who I am a big fan of BTW) was “paying back” those who delivered for the new administration.

  3. Alan,

    I understand your point. So, do you disagree with my assertion that a singular common language is necessary for a unified society or that Richardson was out of line restating his speech in Spanish?

    Keep in mind, I state in the post that more Americans learning more languages is a good thing. Teaching kids a a variety of languages early in their scholastic experience is terrific (BTW, my daughter is in AP honors Spanish – 5th year – and takes Chinese as well).

    I understand the “payback” for the votes, as you put it, but I ask again, where do you draw the line? Chinese-Americans also voted for Obama. Why not “reward” them too? Why stop at the top two languages?

    Why doesn’t English cover everyone? Why are there Mexican-Americans, and Chinese-Americans, and Japanese-Americans, and so forth. Why aren’t we all Americans? Don’t we want to bring everyone together instead of breaking us all apart into groups?

    OK, maybe that’s a bit idealistic. But you gotta start somewhere, right?

  4. Alan,

    I understand your point. So, do you disagree with my assertion that a singular common language is necessary for a unified society or that Richardson was out of line restating his speech in Spanish?

    Keep in mind, I state in the post that more Americans learning more languages is a good thing. Teaching kids a a variety of languages early in their scholastic experience is terrific (BTW, my daughter is in AP honors Spanish – 5th year – and takes Chinese as well).

    I understand the “payback” for the votes, as you put it, but I ask again, where do you draw the line? Chinese-Americans also voted for Obama. Why not “reward” them too? Why stop at the top two languages?

    Why doesn’t English cover everyone? Why are there Mexican-Americans, and Chinese-Americans, and Japanese-Americans, and so forth. Why aren’t we all Americans? Don’t we want to bring everyone together instead of breaking us all apart into groups?

    OK, maybe that’s a bit idealistic. But you gotta start somewhere, right?

  5. Will,

    I didn’t catch the conference, but I believe that you meant to say that Barack Obama is getting more “comfortable”, versus “casual” speaking to the press.

    For the sake of arguement, I would like to take acception to your assertion “Successful societies have as much in common as possible, and language is one of the biggest barriers to sharing a culture”. Having grown up on the east coast, and now living on the west coast (for the 2nd half of my life), I have been exposed to a great variety of cultures and I am fortunate in that. What makes these recent immigrants as much or more so “americans”, in my mind, is their enthusiastic embracing of the ideals of america: equal opportunity, hardwork, freedom of choice, the democractic process; not their english skills or lack thereof.

    America has always prided itself in its melting pot tradition and its “culture” is a dynamic work in progress.

    Quebec/Canada’s problem is they have never embraced a common ideal and are still fighting the French and Indian wars 250 years later. Language is only one of the symptoms of a more significant malady.

    Accomodation of first generation immigrants to this country does not, I think, lead to a slippery slope of an ever increasing factionalized society. Children of immigrants very quickly adapt to the predominant culture, whether their parents wish that or not. Most of us will naturally have a pride in our heritage, but that does not preclude wanting to be apart of another culture. As adults, it is difficult to learn a new language, and to have a society to ascribe that to a reticence to adapt to new ways is unfar and counter productive, we do not always have the nimbleness in our minds as we have in our hearts

    Being more accepting and accomodating of our individual diversity will only strengthen commitment to our common ideals, and it is our ideals, that make us americans.

    John Bower

  6. Will,

    I didn’t catch the conference, but I believe that you meant to say that Barack Obama is getting more “comfortable”, versus “casual” speaking to the press.

    For the sake of arguement, I would like to take acception to your assertion “Successful societies have as much in common as possible, and language is one of the biggest barriers to sharing a culture”. Having grown up on the east coast, and now living on the west coast (for the 2nd half of my life), I have been exposed to a great variety of cultures and I am fortunate in that. What makes these recent immigrants as much or more so “americans”, in my mind, is their enthusiastic embracing of the ideals of america: equal opportunity, hardwork, freedom of choice, the democractic process; not their english skills or lack thereof.

    America has always prided itself in its melting pot tradition and its “culture” is a dynamic work in progress.

    Quebec/Canada’s problem is they have never embraced a common ideal and are still fighting the French and Indian wars 250 years later. Language is only one of the symptoms of a more significant malady.

    Accomodation of first generation immigrants to this country does not, I think, lead to a slippery slope of an ever increasing factionalized society. Children of immigrants very quickly adapt to the predominant culture, whether their parents wish that or not. Most of us will naturally have a pride in our heritage, but that does not preclude wanting to be apart of another culture. As adults, it is difficult to learn a new language, and to have a society to ascribe that to a reticence to adapt to new ways is unfar and counter productive, we do not always have the nimbleness in our minds as we have in our hearts

    Being more accepting and accomodating of our individual diversity will only strengthen commitment to our common ideals, and it is our ideals, that make us americans.

    John Bower

  7. Very well stated, John. Your point about the criticality of shared ideals feels right to me.

    Keep in mind, though, that my comments have nothing to do with the US being a melting pot (which I agree is one of our country’s great strengths) or accommodation of first generation immigrants. Nor does it have to do with subsequent generations which, the data shows, are *not* adapting to their new home’s culture as much as we all would like to believe (for more evidence on this, take a look at how many elementary schools in the country are teaching second-generation Spanish-speaking students in Spanish, not in English).

    My point is about language only. Further, it’s about having a single, common language. How fast would society break down if you called the police for help and the people at the other end of the line couldn’t understand you? How about when your Spanish speaking neighbor does the same thing?

    Talking about a common language strikes a nerve in most people in the US. I understand this because such a discussion is so often accompanied with broader society remarks and often with prejudice and isolationist attitudes.

    I’d like to see us have a discussion of what are the benefits and costs of a common language. My believe that the benefits of a common language far, far outweigh the costs. The biggest of which is the divisional nature of multiple, unique languages putting up walls between people.

  8. Very well stated, John. Your point about the criticality of shared ideals feels right to me.

    Keep in mind, though, that my comments have nothing to do with the US being a melting pot (which I agree is one of our country’s great strengths) or accommodation of first generation immigrants. Nor does it have to do with subsequent generations which, the data shows, are *not* adapting to their new home’s culture as much as we all would like to believe (for more evidence on this, take a look at how many elementary schools in the country are teaching second-generation Spanish-speaking students in Spanish, not in English).

    My point is about language only. Further, it’s about having a single, common language. How fast would society break down if you called the police for help and the people at the other end of the line couldn’t understand you? How about when your Spanish speaking neighbor does the same thing?

    Talking about a common language strikes a nerve in most people in the US. I understand this because such a discussion is so often accompanied with broader society remarks and often with prejudice and isolationist attitudes.

    I’d like to see us have a discussion of what are the benefits and costs of a common language. My believe that the benefits of a common language far, far outweigh the costs. The biggest of which is the divisional nature of multiple, unique languages putting up walls between people.

  9. Políticamente incorrecto, pero un buen punto.
    Ya hay demasiadas cosas que nos dividen como pueblo.
    Al igual que con el correo electrónico: uso un protocolo común, pero decir lo que quieras.

  10. Políticamente incorrecto, pero un buen punto.
    Ya hay demasiadas cosas que nos dividen como pueblo.
    Al igual que con el correo electrónico: uso un protocolo común, pero decir lo que quieras.

  11. Hey Will,

    Took a while to comment because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say — this is a subject I’m somewhat conflicted on.

    I grew up in the UK, took French lessons from age 10 to 16 and German from age 13 – 16 (and tried Spanish for a few weeks but got nowhere).

    I 100% agree with your assertion that a common language for day to day interaction is a must for a functional society. If I weren’t so lazy, I could probably research and cite a dozen examples of cultures that have been held back by the lack of a common language.

    I also 100% agree that more Americans speaking more languages is a good thing. It’s hard to maintain a lack of world-awareness when you speak more than one language.

    However, my wife grew up in Puerto Rico and is a native Spanish speaker, so I have some exposure to the issues of English as a second language.

    There is one point I think you’re missing. This isn’t like Bush reciting some parroted Spanish phrase, this is someone who most likely has been a Spanish speaker for his entire life. I see his actions more as an acknowledgement of, and pride in, the community he’s from rather than an attempt to undermine English as the predominant language in the US.

    If he were of Chinese descent and repeated his acceptance in Chinese, I’d feel the same way. Or any other cultural background…

    However, if he had given his speech in Spanish first, I’d feel very differently.

    Just my $0.02 🙂

  12. Hey Will,

    Took a while to comment because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say — this is a subject I’m somewhat conflicted on.

    I grew up in the UK, took French lessons from age 10 to 16 and German from age 13 – 16 (and tried Spanish for a few weeks but got nowhere).

    I 100% agree with your assertion that a common language for day to day interaction is a must for a functional society. If I weren’t so lazy, I could probably research and cite a dozen examples of cultures that have been held back by the lack of a common language.

    I also 100% agree that more Americans speaking more languages is a good thing. It’s hard to maintain a lack of world-awareness when you speak more than one language.

    However, my wife grew up in Puerto Rico and is a native Spanish speaker, so I have some exposure to the issues of English as a second language.

    There is one point I think you’re missing. This isn’t like Bush reciting some parroted Spanish phrase, this is someone who most likely has been a Spanish speaker for his entire life. I see his actions more as an acknowledgement of, and pride in, the community he’s from rather than an attempt to undermine English as the predominant language in the US.

    If he were of Chinese descent and repeated his acceptance in Chinese, I’d feel the same way. Or any other cultural background…

    However, if he had given his speech in Spanish first, I’d feel very differently.

    Just my $0.02 🙂

  13. Nick,

    I think that is totally rational and a great point of view. Honestly, I hadn’t looked at it that way, but I think you’re right. In fact, I really *hope* that you’re right. My conspiracy-theorist nature, makes me fear that it’s mostly politically motivated, though. Pandering to the Latin population.

    Googling this matter is interesting. Most people don’t come away with the reaction I had, but there are many, mostly from the Latino community that are offended by the slight shown to Richardson and, therefore, to the entire Latino community, by not having him nominated to Secretary of State. To take your point a bit further, perhaps he is just reaching out to state that they are connected to this administration regardless.

  14. Nick,

    I think that is totally rational and a great point of view. Honestly, I hadn’t looked at it that way, but I think you’re right. In fact, I really *hope* that you’re right. My conspiracy-theorist nature, makes me fear that it’s mostly politically motivated, though. Pandering to the Latin population.

    Googling this matter is interesting. Most people don’t come away with the reaction I had, but there are many, mostly from the Latino community that are offended by the slight shown to Richardson and, therefore, to the entire Latino community, by not having him nominated to Secretary of State. To take your point a bit further, perhaps he is just reaching out to state that they are connected to this administration regardless.

  15. Politicians pandering to constituents? Never 😉

    As ever, the truth is probably a combination of all of the above.

    But if we could aim for a common language and add individual cultural pride mixed with a healthy dose of inter-cultural tolerance, we’d have change my skeptical butt would believe in…

  16. Politicians pandering to constituents? Never 😉

    As ever, the truth is probably a combination of all of the above.

    But if we could aim for a common language and add individual cultural pride mixed with a healthy dose of inter-cultural tolerance, we’d have change my skeptical butt would believe in…

  17. Pingback: Pages tagged "acceptance"

  18. It’a CRAP…if you want to live in the USA, learn English.
    It was a signal to all illegals to celebrate the invasion,
    while they get free services and pay no taxes.

    No wonder tons of people are leaving FL and CA to get their kids a decent ENGLISH education.

    =====================================

    “In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American … There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag … We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language … and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”

    Theodore Roosevelt 1907

  19. It’a CRAP…if you want to live in the USA, learn English.
    It was a signal to all illegals to celebrate the invasion,
    while they get free services and pay no taxes.

    No wonder tons of people are leaving FL and CA to get their kids a decent ENGLISH education.

    =====================================

    “In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American … There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag … We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language … and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.”

    Theodore Roosevelt 1907

  20. You also pointed out that social media and having a well thought out social media/blog commenting action plan are critical to getting office chairs

  21. You also pointed out that social media and having a well thought out social media/blog commenting action plan are critical to getting office chairs

  22. words with the biggest impact for me, were those used by Richardson when he repeated his acceptance statement in Spanish.

  23. were those used by Richardson when he repeated his acceptance statement in Spanish. Yes, Spanish. My jaw literally dropped open.
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  24. it’s completely divisive. Not merging, but further separating the
    solely English-speaking community and solely Spanish-speaking community.

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