Hable Espanol?

Here’s something I don’t get and it’s come up in casual conversation twice in the last two days — once with a guy buying aspirin for his bad knees in the check-out line at Drug Mart, me holding my soon to be new hangers. “All these people speaking Spanish. They should just learn to speak English.” And not a soul around us was speaking anything but English. It was pressing on his mind enough to blurt out his viewpoint to a stranger (me) in line, along with the entire story of his knees, soon to be replaced but not without major fighting with the insurance folks. No, he hadn’t seen Sicko, his son is a physician.

Another situation of “what I should have asked.”

What’s the harm in learning some Spanish? Taking it one step further, what’s could possibly be the benefit? Some people (Fox News?) treat English as if it were a religion and any other language as pure blasphemy.

The USA is the ONLY industrialized country that routinely graduates students who are NOT fluent in another language. So, what’s the problem with that? Doesn’t most of the world speak English? Ah, no, as a matter of fact, they don’t. More people speak Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, and Spanish than speak English as a first language. Add in the second language speakers and English scoots ahead of Spanish and Hindi, but doesn’t even begin to approach the over 1 billion people who speak Chinese. In fact, only 5.6 % of the world’s total population speaks English.

Doesn’t it kind of make sense that if we English speakers are engaging in a global marketplace our future citizens should be able to talk to their business partners? I’ve seen enough spy movies to know that translators don’t always give it to you straight. If the news from abroad is any indication of our ability to make our needs known(China re: toys and dog food, Iraq re: the war to name two) we could benefit from some better communication skills. Where we going to get those? At some school that throws in token hello-how-are-you language courses only at the HS level?

Ten years ago I visited a classroom of second language learners in Stockholm (the Swedes take in a lot of political refugees). In the classroom, the Hindi kids sat here, the Bulgarian kids there, over there the Arabic speakers, and in this corner the Cambodian kids and so on. If the kids had a question on the lesson, they turned to their neighbor for clarification in their mother tongue, to their teacher to whom they spoke in Swedish or to me in English. I was there to teaching the writing of poetry in English — their THIRD language. The children were in fifth grade. They all wrote poems in English. Nice poems. Funny. Adorable poems.

In this country an ESL school has a stigma — instead of being seen as a place where students can get some extra language skills along with fractions and phonics, they are seen as second class. What kind of backwards thinking is that? No one ever died an infection of foreign language or was denied a job for diversity of language.

When I was growing up outside of Detroit post WWII many many of my friends had a grandmother in a back bedroom who didn’t speak English. DPs they called them. (these women, always made the best cookies, perogies, and pasties btw). The parents might have had a lingering accent, the kids spoke perfect English but were also defensively conversant enough in that other language so that the parents couldn’t pull the wool over their eyes. Hamtramack had street signs in Polish, Greektown in Greek, so that the DPs could get around, helping one another out in their selective groups while they assimilated into a new culture and struggled with the language. We all thought we were very cool learning to swear in those languages plus of course yiddish which was the funnest of all. The thing is, we grew up with a hands on, day in, day out awareness that not everybody in the world talked the same and diversity in language and cookies could be a very good thing.

As I visit International Schools I am so impressed with the students’ mastery of languages and can’t help thinking that they have an edge up over our home grown kids. Do you think the next generation of engineers might have an advantage if they can talk to both the executives and the folks working on the factory floors, no matter where that factory is or what language is being spoken? Yeah. We are not helping our kids by insisting on “English only,” we are holding them back. There is NO SUBSTITUTE for hearing an unfamiliar language; we need that kind of reminder in places like Mentor, OH, that there is a whole world of people out there who aren’t exactly like us. And that’s okay, and they are okay people, and we are all struggling to make ourselves understood.

I want those days in Detroit back. I want to share them with my kids and my grandkids. Do kids need good English language skills to succeed today? Of course they do. NOT developing these skills WILL put a definite cramp on future employability.

But putting self-imposed limitations on language learning is like restricting your snack diet to Oreos. They’re okay, but there is so much more out there.

3 responses to “Hable Espanol?”

  1. You make a very valid point. As the world’s superpower, America has expected the world to speak English for several decades. Now India and China are superpowers and they will expect us to speak their languages.

  2. kathyvirgw says:

    In our travels I’ve gained a lot of sympathy for non-native English speakers in the US. I’m amazed how receptive people are in other countries to English speakers. They make do with my fragmented sentences in their native language.

  3. Eva says:

    It is well known scientific fact that the ‘window’ of learning languages is most wide open in infancy. Use it!

    One thing that bothers me (among others) when I visit the US, and watch TV and movies, is the use of ‘voice-over’ or of dubbing. Almost nothing is subtitled. I intensely dislike that! That could be such an excellent opportunity to get used to what other languages sound like, and pick up words and sentences from it. Here in Sweden only movies and TV for kids below the age of learning to read is dubbed or voiced-over. On the radio you hear all of what the original voice says first – then it is translated into Swedish.

    Knowing languages is also an important tool in business – trade people now go to school to learn new important languages, and about culture, customs and behavior to make better business in countries like China, South America and the Arab world. At least over here…

    When I went to school in the 60’s I learned English from 5th grade (2nd grade nowadays), German 5 years, French 4 years and Spanish 2 years – and since our languages are similar I understand spoken and written Norwegian and Danish well, even if I don´t speak them. The Spanish I was taught in 12 grade in my US high school was a sad joke – useless.

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