Bilingualism, though derided, is the language of modern politics

Hillary Clinton introduces running mate Tim Kaine at FIU

The Democratic presidential candidate introduced her vice presidential pick, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, at Florida International University's Panther Arena on Saturday, July 23, 2016.
Up Next
The Democratic presidential candidate introduced her vice presidential pick, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, at Florida International University's Panther Arena on Saturday, July 23, 2016.

In the early years of the American presidency, the White House was home to a long run of multilingual residents. Thomas Jefferson, who argued decisively against making English the official language of the Union, spoke French and Italian. John Quincy Adams spoke French and Dutch. Martin Van Buren spoke Dutch before he learned to speak English. Herbert Hoover spoke Mandarin and is rumored to have spoken it with his wife in the White House as a kind of “private language.”

But as the United States emerged as the first world superpower in the wake of World War II, the perceived status of English rose, while the perceived value of multilingualism declined. When FDR left office, the tradition of multilingual presidents left with him, and the U.S. presidency became “English-only” several decades before “English only” became a red-meat political issue for the far right.

This election cycle will not change the monolingualism of the White House; neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump speaks a language other than English. But Clinton’s running mate, former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, is a Spanish speaker, a “fluent” one, as the Clinton campaign has been sure to announce.

Putting politics aside, the selection of a Spanish/English bilingual seems like a pragmatic and wise move. With as many as 50 million speakers, Spanish is spoken by about 15 percent of the population and is by far the most spoken second language in the United States. The recent demand for Spanish/English bilingual education is on a multiyear uptick, not only in Latino-majority cities like Miami, but also in places such as Minneapolis and Portland, and hundreds of towns and cities in between.

And as a mostly ignored matter of historical fact, Spanish has a longer continuous presence in the present-day United States than any other European language, including English. Yet, the fact of Kaine’s bilingualism has proven troublesome for the Clinton campaign, with attacks coming from the right and the left.

The trouble began almost immediately after Kaine delivered his debut speech in Miami as Clinton’s running mate, in which he spoke personally and passionately — in Spanish — about living in Honduras and learning Spanish. Although the audience seemed persuaded, pundits from the right pounced. Political commentator Scottie Nell Hughs, a Trump supporter, remarked that, “What Mr. Trump did, he spoke in a language all Americans can understand — that is English. I didn’t have to get a translator for anything going on,” in reference to Kaine’s Spanish.

To the extent that the Trump campaign has articulated a perspective on language diversity, Hughs’ remarks would seem to be consistent with it. During the primary season, Trump excoriated Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish, suggesting that, “He should really set an example by speaking English in the United States.” Trump’s remarks about Bush — and now his surrogate’s remarks about Kaine — are undergirded by what linguists call “the one nation, one language ideology,” a set of beliefs dating to 18th century European nationalism in which each nation is imagined to have exactly one people and one language, each discrete and distinctive from the next.

The notion happens to fit coherently with Trump’s particular brand of nationalism, in which greatness is imagined as existing at some unspecified point in the past, presumably before the days in which politicians gave speeches in languages besides English. The fact that those days never really existed is beside the point.

And Trump’s nostalgia for an English-only past that never was didn’t stop his campaign from printing signs in Spanish, Hispanics para Trump, complete with the prepositional error that gives Spanish teachers everywhere headaches — the correct preposition is por or con.

From the left, Clinton was accused of using Kaine’s bilingualism to pander to Latino voters, and even of using a Spanish litmus test in which qualified Latino candidates were passed over for not speaking Spanish fluently enough. Unfortunately, affluent Whites often are praised for speaking the very same languages immigrants are punished for speaking. And there are certainly good reasons to be suspicious of language pandering — this cycle Clinton bungled the pronunciation of the famed Chicano-rights slogan, sí se puede, and her campaign looked desperate when it released a website calling Clinton abuela.

But to dismiss Kaine’s bilingualism as false, to describe it as “butchered” and to cynically reduce it to pandering not only ignores Kaine’s record, but also reproduces the logics in which only certain kinds of people should speak certain kinds of languages.

Those logics, in the end, aren’t so different from Trump’s; both are about prescribing “appropriate” linguistic behavior according to social beliefs about language, nation and race. Of course, Kaine’s bilingualism is no substitute for Latino voices and Latino leadership, but it is nevertheless an asset at a time in which more bilingual leadership is needed at the top.

One of our greatest liberties — the one that Thomas Jefferson fought for — is the freedom to speak whatever language we choose. A vice president that breaks up the unquestioned assumption of English monolingualism reminds us of that liberty, and that people have been practicing it all along.

Phillip M. Carter is assistant professor of linguistics at Florida International University.