July 25, 2011

Why Don’t You Know Spanish?

Do you ever feel sheepish about not knowing other languages? And do you wonder how I can make the instant assumption that you only speak one language? Shame on me, except that the assumption turns out to be true: Speaking only one language fluently is an American hallmark. And so, shame on all of us.

What is it about our culture that seems to discourage this most basic of skills? In even the poorest of nations it is common for people to speak several dialects of the same language, if not entirely different languages. They do this without the advantage of schooling sometimes, much less language tutors and elaborate software training programs.

I have heard several theories about Americans’ lack of linguistic ability, including the possibility that we are just too xenophobic to care about other cultures or take the time to speak to people in their own language. There’s also the explanation that we probably don’t need to learn other languages, as English is taking over the world. I suppose that could happen, but whenever I’m in a major U.S. city such as Los Angeles I wonder if maybe we haven’t got that backwards: Are we certain it’s English that’s taking over, and not Spanish? Because there are an awful lot of people saying hola and adios there and they don’t seem to have gotten the memo that their language will be obsolete soon.

I have a lot of opinions on this language issue and they’re not overly generous to anyone in this picture. Having served a fair number of immigrants as laid-off workers I lose patience with anyone who has worked in this country for more than a few years but doesn’t speak English yet. That just compounds the difficulty of every task related to job search and life in general. But I’m just as impatient with native-born English speakers who act like they’re the only ones here. With the enormous gains in the Hispanic population alone, each of us must realize that our next boss, co-workers or clients – not to mention in-laws and friends – could easily be Spanish-first or Spanish-only speakers. It’s time for English-only speakers to start learning Spanish for at least conversational purposes. Who knows? You may enjoy it enough to go into a language translating job. But if not, at least you’ll know enough to communicate and that’s what really matters.

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