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Bilingual, So To Speak, But Halting
Speak Properly, Even With Accent
WHITE HOUSE LETTER: Bilingual, So To Speak, But Halting
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
June 3, 2002
This isn't going to be another story about Gregory-gate, is it?" a White House official asked in exasperation last week. Not exactly. But when President Bush made fun of David Gregory, the White House correspondent for NBC, for asking a question in French of President Jacques Chirac of France at a news conference by the two leaders on May 27 in Paris, it seemed an excellent opportunity to take a closer look at Mr. Bush's foreign language, Spanish, and the politics of using it.
For starters, Mr. Bush may have been the first American president to speak Spanish at Élysée Palace, an odd locale to employ the language of Cervantes. But in this case, Mr. Bush grabbed for a quick phrase in what looked like an attempt at bilingual one-upsmanship with Mr. Gregory.
"Very good, the guy memorizes four words, and he plays like he's intercontinental," Mr. Bush said of Mr. Gregory. "I'm impressed. Que bueno. Now I'm literate in two languages." Mr. Bush was using the Spanish phrase for "how wonderful," as the deluge of articles about the incident pointed out the next day.
But just how wonderful is the president's Spanish? More to the point, how much will speaking Spanish help lure crucial Latino voters to the Republican fold in 2004?
Mr. Bush probably answered the first question best himself last month in Miami when he told thousands of cheering Cuban-Americans, who vote overwhelmingly Republican, that "no quiero destruir un idioma que bonita, y por eso voy a hablar en ingles" "I don't want to destroy a beautiful language, so I'm going to speak in English."
Various fluent Spanish speakers, depending on their political persuasion, describe Mr. Bush's Spanish as halting to conversational, but all give him high marks for trying. As the Spanish wire service Agencia EFE has noted, Mr. Bush speaks the language poorly "but with great confidence." Other Spanish speakers quibbled last year with Mr. Bush's pronunciation when he made the first radio address in Spanish by a United States president. They noted, for example, that he stumbled over the words administracion and nuestros intereses, or our interests.
"He doesn't try very hard to get the pronunciation the way native speakers speak," said Otto Santa Ana, a Chicano studies professor at the University of California with a doctorate in linguistics. "But Latinos were very encouraged by him. Here is the president of the United States speaking Spanish, however haltingly. He's simply legitimizing what is so obvious to us that people cheer him. And they cheer him because he's acknowledging them as Americans."
Both Dr. Santa Ana and Israel Hernandez, a longtime aide to Mr. Bush, describe Mr. Bush's accent as heavy West Texas. No matter, they say. "It's conversational," said Mr. Hernandez, a deputy to Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser. "He understands enough to respond back to people who ask him questions, and he could even read an article and understand it."
During Mr. Bush's first campaign for governor of Texas, it was Mr. Hernandez who probably heard more Spanish from Mr. Bush than anyone else. The two spent long hours alone, driving from stop to stop, schmoozing in Spanglish. "We would joke around and go in and out of English and Spanish," Mr. Hernandez said. "You have to be good enough to do that. And he understands Tex-Mex slang."
Mr. Bush first heard Spanish growing up in Midland, Tex., where many of his classmates spoke it. He took Spanish courses in high school and at Yale, and as an adult back in Texas he began to use the language whenever he could. When Mr. Bush was owner of the Rangers baseball team, Mr. Hernandez said, "I remember him going to the ballpark, and he would speak Spanish to some of the players. It was, `Have a good game, how's the family?' "
Mr. Bush used Spanish in his unsuccessful 1978 Texas Congressional race, his two governor's races and the 2000 presidential campaign. Al Gore also used a little Spanish in the 2000 race, but according to native speakers he spoke it worse than Mr. Bush.
Still, both candidates proved that the methods of pursuing the Latino vote had progressed considerably since 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford ate a tamale in front of television cameras during a campaign stop in San Antonio but unfortunately did not realize he had to peel back the covering of corn husk before taking a bite.
Mr. Bush can be expected to use Spanish liberally in the 2004 campaign, particularly since Latinos are expected to be as much as 10 percent of the electorate, up from 7 percent in 2000. "So by necessity, Republicans have to win a larger share of them," said Matthew Dowd, who oversees polling for the White House. Speaking Spanish can only help with Latinos who as a group are inclined to vote Democratic, Mr. Dowd added.
Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, agreed. "It's a very powerful signal, not just to the Latino community, but to white swing voters who say, `Oh, this is a different kind of Republican,' " he said.
Nonetheless, no one should go overboard yet about the importance of Spanish in winning American elections. Consider the most fluent Spanish speaker of all the major modern presidential candidates: Michael S. Dukakis.
Speak Properly, Even With Accent
By Rosa V. Fargas
May 20, 2002
Sympathizing with the visitors from other countries who wish to speak English minus the accent, I am here to let you know that I am one of them. I am an American from the island of Puerto Rico, Spanish is my native language and English is my acquired second language.
I have been in the United States since 1956. The accent is still there, no matter what, but my language skills are far better than the skills of those who are born and raised here in the USA.
The schools are busy teaching children foreign languages in grammar school, yet one hears young scholars say such things as "loan me a pen," "it don't matter," "I play good," etc.
It is better to speak English properly even if it is spoken with an accent.