THE BLOG
10/05/2010 02:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Tight Races for Congressional Seats, Language Could Make a Difference

With dozens of U.S. Congressional seats at risk of changing hands in the upcoming November elections, candidates from both parties intend to coax each and every voter to head to the polls and cast a ballot in their favor. But will those potential voters actually be able to understand the candidates' positions?

According to the latest American Community Survey, approximately one in every five residents of the United States (19.7%) speaks a language other than English at home, a testament to the country's long history - and current state - of ethnic and linguistic diversity. Here is a breakdown of the percentage of individuals who speak a foreign language in their residences within each state:

SOURCE: Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 American Community Survey

The data from the American Community Survey highlights the percentage of individuals living in a given state that speak a non-English language at home. Not all of these individuals are necessarily eligible to vote, and many of them do speak English to some degree. However, with close races predicted in many districts throughout the country, even tiny margins can make or break a candidate. The ability to communicate to potential voters in their native languages is taking on new importance.

Case in point: This past Saturday, a gubernatorial debate took place in California between Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown. In a nod to the importance of the Latino vote, for the first time in history, the debate was broadcast in Spanish by Univisión.

Yet, not all candidates support making information available in other languages. Many Tea Party candidates seek to make English the official language of the United States, in spite of the fact that this view puts them in direct conflict with U.S. Federal law, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, including language.

Delaware Republican primary winner Christine O'Donnell goes so far as to promise that she "will fight to make English America's official language for all governmental purposes," adding, "We cannot be one people without speaking ONE language in common."

The Tea Party movement often evokes the Founding Fathers with its messages, slogans, and imagery. But what would America's most famous patriots say about language? Multilingualism was actually common among some of the earliest leaders of the United States. John Adams spoke many languages very well. Thomas Jefferson was fluent in six languages. John Quincy Adams studied at least 4 languages, and even worked as a French interpreter on diplomatic travels to Europe. The country's eighth president, Martin Van Buren, claimed Dutch as his mother tongue - English was his second language.

The tradition of multilingualism in the White House does not stop with the earliest commanders-in-chief. President Garfield knew many languages, as did Woodrow Wilson. President Hoover, a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese, often spoke the language in the White House with his wife. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke French, and was the first president to broadcast in a foreign language.

In more recent decades, foreign languages have become an important part of campaign strategy. To support her husband's presidential campaign, polyglot Jackie Kennedy appealed to multilingual voters in several languages, including Italian and French. Her speech in Spanish was memorialized on YouTube. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush appealed to voters in Spanish in their presidential bids. Barack Obama, who speaks Indonesian, also spoke to Puerto Rican voters directly in Spanish.

Presidential candidates have long embraced multilingual messaging as a way to reach more voters. Will would-be members of Congress do the same? Candidates from both parties - especially those in tight races - may want to re-think their strategies for non-English languages - and not just in places like California, New Mexico, and Texas. In 24 states - including Alaska, Delaware, Idaho and Utah - individuals who speak a language other than English at home make up 10% or more of the population. In other words, adding more languages to the mix - especially Spanish - can help candidates reach significant groups of prospective voters. As for whether or not campaign managers will recognize the importance of this demographic in time for the November elections, habrá que ver (translation: we'll have to wait and see).