N ow this is what I call a communication gap. Whenever Arnold Schwarzenegger tries to talk about Latinos and language, he winds up in agua caliente.
During a recent appearance before the conference of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the California governor suggested one way to improve the dismal test results of students with limited proficiency in English was to “turn off the Spanish television set.”
It brought to mind what happened last year during a campaign stop to Los Angeles’ Chinatown when he lectured Mexicans on how to succeed in this country.
The secret, he said at the time, was “that you learn the language . . . and (that) you have to become part of America.”
He insisted “that is very difficult . . . for Mexicans (who) . . . try to stay Mexican but try to be in America.” His advice to Mexicans: “Go and immerse yourself, and assimilate into the American culture.”
I thought those comments were out of line and said so to Schwarzenegger.
And yet, I feel differently about what the governor had to say last week about how students who want to learn English should start by switching off Spanish-language television. About that, he’s absolutely right.
What helped sell me was listening to the governor recall his immigrant experience.
Schwarzenegger explained to the journalists that when he came to the United States from Austria, he rarely spoke German and that he learned English “through immersion and just really sitting in front of the television set” even though at first he didn’t understand a word being said.
He also read English-language newspapers, he said, along with comic books and anything else he could get his hands on. It paid off. He learned English within a couple of years.
If only we could say the same for Latino kids who get stuck in bilingual education programs indefinitely – because it’s good for the school and for administrators, even if it isn’t good for the students.
These programs survive thanks to liberals, who seized on Schwarzenegger’s remarks and tried to exploit them.
Then there was the response from failed 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides, who said the governor’s remarks “displayed a troubling ignorance about our state’s diversity and strength.”
Part of that strength comes from immigrants who work hard and contribute to California. The governor, Angelides said, “should give them a hand up, not a slap down.”
What in the world is he talking about? If you want to give people a hand up, you start by treating them as grown-ups, giving them lots of straight talk and expecting no less from them than you would of yourself.
That is exactly what Schwarzenegger did. The governor has it figured out. People will pick up English if they’re immersed, and if they have no choice but to learn it.
When we set up industries such as native language education or Spanish-language television, we create linguistic cocoons that offer the comfort of a warm bath when what English-learners really need is a cold shower.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org