I've been taking lessons to learn Spanish for a while now, and it's given me a new understanding of how difficult it is to learn a new language. And there's no question that if I lived in a Spanish-speaking country and had to study and work and shop in Spanish as I struggled to learn the language, the challenges would be greater. But there's also no doubt that the rewards would be greater, too. Mastering the language of a country opens doors of opportunity, plain and simple.
In the United States, English is by no means our only language, but it is the language of economic success and upward mobility. More important, it is the language of our national unity and political discourse. And just as opportunity is the birthright of all native-born Americans, it becomes the inheritance of all new Americans. But this is nothing more than a nice sentiment if we don't do all we can to encourage and help new Americans learn English.
Among the ways we can do this as quickly as possible is to replace bilingual education programs in our public schools with intensive English instruction and abolish the federal mandates requiring multilingual ballots and government documents.
Passions sometimes run high when the topic is English. I learned that firsthand recently because of a poor choice of words when talking about this subject. That's understandable. After all, there are 31 million Spanish speakers in the United States. There are also millions of Americans whose first language is Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Hindi or Farsi, to name just a few. They are all justifiably proud of their language and their cultural heritage.
Still, it's important that we not allow passion to rule the debate. Too often, sincere expressions of support for English as our unifying language are interpreted as a lack of support for welcoming and respecting new Americans. For example, those who support "English-first" are often mistakenly portrayed as supporters of "English-only." English-first supporters believe that English should be the official language of the government but that other languages are fine in communities and commerce. In contrast, English-only advocates want to outlaw all languages other than English.
Clearly, these two positions are very different. Promoting English-first is not — and should not be — disrespectful of other languages. In fact, supporting English instruction for immigrants demonstrates our confidence in their ability to pursue happiness here and contribute to their families, communities and new country.
As a part of any comprehensive immigration reform, we should renew our commitment to making sure that all new immigrants have the opportunity to learn English. In public schools, children should have intensive English instruction rather than bilingual classes. For adults, we can adopt something similar to a program Israel has for its new immigrants. There, every new resident is entitled to 500 hours of intensive Hebrew language instruction paid for by the government. History and civics training could be added to the program.
Equally important, we must abolish federal rules requiring that government documents — including ballots — be printed in multiple languages. These multilingual documents discourage immigrants from learning English as rapidly as possible, limiting their ability to engage in a truly common political culture. Rather than expanding opportunities for new Americans, these mandates limit them.
We must never lose sight of the self-evident truths affirmed at our founding: that we are all created equal — citizen and noncitizen alike — and that we are each endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If we are to live out these truths, new immigrants deserve our respect, not our condescension. They deserve the opportunity to pursue happiness in the United States that comes with speaking English.
Meanwhile, I'm going to keep working on my Spanish. It's hard, but I'm making progress — poco a poco.
Newt Gingrich, House speaker from 1995 to 1999, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America."