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CEPEDA: An argument rendered silly

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

Not everyone speaking same language on English push

In a recent news story about the GOP's accelerating conservative turn, a reporter compared the current party platform plank supporting "English as the nation's official language" to its view, back in the gentler 1980s, that Hispanics and others should not "be barred from education or employment opportunities because English is not their first language."

In any language, this would be considered a false equivalency. To want everyone in the United States to speak English is not the same as wanting those who don't to suffer discrimination in schools or the workplace.

But, for a moment, let's go with the idea that the Republicans have veered far to the right, because it speaks to what Jeb Bush, former Florida governor and level-headed Republican, has for years been trying to tell the ultra-conservative wing of the GOP. During a panel discussion at the Republican National Convention, Bush said: "The future of our party is to reach out consistently to have a tone that is open and hospitable to people who share values. The conservative cause would be the governing philosophy as far as the eye could see ... and that's doable if we just stop acting stupid."

And by being stupid, one could arguably point to any number of Republicans who have, just as one example, likened immigrants to dogs, cattle, rodents and any number of other dehumanizing terms during public speeches.

But on the language issue, let's be fair. In the actual text of the GOP's immigration platform plank, you'll find the bit about supporting English as the official language immediately preceded by a statement of gratitude to the thousands of new immigrants serving in the armed forces, a call to embrace newcomers, albeit legal ones, and this: "We encourage the retention and transmission of heritage tongues."

Unfortunately, even the combination of keep-your-language-but-hurry-up-and-add English is too much for critics to bear. Some think white "oppressors" seek to exterminate Hispanic culture by crushing the mother tongue; others see it as discriminatory. But the reality is that widespread adoption of the English language is rendering this language argument silly.

Hispanics know the power of being bilingual. The numbers plainly show that Latinos come to this country and quickly adopt the English language -- sometimes in concert with their native language, and other times just giving in to the Great Assimilation Machine.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center -- reiterating countless other studies that have proved time and again that immigrants from Latin America are assimilating to the U.S. culture every bit as rapidly and seamlessly as prior waves of newcomers -- 65 percent of all U.S. Hispanics 5 and older either speak only English at home or speak English very well.

Now consider that Pew estimates 91 percent of the total U.S. population is English proficient. Would bumping this up to 99.9 percent be so bad? For that matter, would it be so bad to just declare English the "official" language? Doing so is the equivalent of a couple who has lived together for over 20 years and raised well-adjusted children throwing a lavish wedding -- just to make it official.

The problem is that the issue of English as the official language has been consistently mishandled by the parts of the Republican Party that -- as Bush so aptly put it -- are "acting stupid." It makes it seem that what they're really after is a country that's "English-only."

No one with a modicum of sense would suggest that it's better to speak only one language instead of two or more. In America, speaking English is the No. 1 way to get on the path to prosperity -- everyone knows this, whole other countries know this and teach their citizens to speak their native tongue plus English from birth.

In fact, no one knows it better than the six Hispanics who were chosen to speak at the convention -- in prime time and using sprinklings of Spanish -- on behalf of the Republican Party and the leaders who put them there.

The secret behind making English the country's unifying language is simple: Just get the people pushing it to stop being so darned divisive.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.