Bienvenido a los Estados Unidos ya hablan Inglés…

Bienvenido a los Estados Unidos ya hablan Inglés… February 21, 2012

… Learning a foreign language is hard. Really hard. It’s especially hard when I keep getting the bits of Italian I learned mixed in with the Spanish I am currently studying. I am honestly in awe of the multilingual. The biggest obstacle to learning a new language is actually trying to speak it without sounding like complete and total idiot. It really does take a certain level of confidence to speak to a native Spanish speaker in their tongue. You hope they are kind and patient.

I admit that I used to inwardly cringe whenever I had to speak to a person who was not a fluent English speaker. I knew I was in for a slow conversation with lots of repetition. I loathe having to repeat myself. There’s nothing worse than being incredibly busy and having to stop what your doing and spend twenty minutes trying to make myself clear to someone when it would otherwise take a two minute conversation.

Learning Spanish has not only made these interactions run a bit more smoothly and thankfully quicker, it has also made me infinitely more compassionate. I understand that the Spanish speaker in front of me is just as uncomfortable fumbling for words in my language as I was when I visited Rome and butchered the beautiful Italian language. There is a reason why expats seeks each other out when they move to foreign countries. It’s the comfort of the familiar language and customs. It’s not an indicator that these expats want nothing to do with the society they moved to. They aren’t intentionally trying to not assimilate, just remain in their comfort zone.

In the US the Spanish language is no longer about the human desire to communicate and the preference to do so in the way that is the most comfortable and familiar to the speaker. It has become a political tool for the immigration platform. Individuals who support tough immigration laws are usually the ones that don’t appreciate having to “Press 1 for English” and feel that if you move to the US you are obligated to speak our language – Welcome to America, now speak English.

I support tough immigration laws but I know first hand that being required to speak a foreign tongue isn’t something learned overnight. It takes years to learn. So what do immigrants, legal or illegal, do in the meantime if we are to not tolerate a single utterance of the Spanish language? Preventing someone from actively being involved in their new culture due to language constraints is the exact opposite of assimilation.

It’s completely unrealistic to expect a person to jump into another country and immediately speak and behave in a culture foreign to them. There has to be a transition phase which is going to take time. This is why immigrants seek out the local Spanish market and retailers. It’s not that they don’t want to be a part of the US and are making a political statement; they just want to by groceries and run errands with a minimal amount of effort. As a parent I can not find fault in that.

The Spanish language is also not a threat to national security. It will follow the same generational course as any other language spoken in the US. The parents will speak minimal English but their children will be effortlessly bilingual and the grandchildren will speak nothing in their ancestral tongue. I could offer up my own Hispanic family as a prime example.

I think the majority of this Spanish speaking phobia is based on ignorance and underexposure to foreign places and people. But thankfully God made us evolving creatures capable of transition and intellectual growth. As we gain knowledge our understanding develops which enables us to be kinder and empathetic to our fellow man. Language enables us to gain this needed knowledge so why would you want to limit yourself to just one?

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  • Verselle

    (Message for World Day of Migration 2001, 3; cf. John XXIII, Encyclical Mater et
    Magistra, 30; Paul VI, Encyclical Octogesima adveniens, 17). At the same time, States have the right to regulate migration
    flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to
    the dignity of each and every human person. Immigrants, moreover, have the duty
    to integrate into the host Country, respecting its laws and its national
    identity. “The challenge is to combine the welcome due to every human being,
    especially when in need, with a koning of what is necessary for both the
    local inhabitants and the new arrivals to live a dignified and peaceful life”
    (World Day of Peace 2001, 13).

    Would you have me learn every Asian language in my community in addition to Spanish?

    • Laura

      I don’t think she’s advocating HAVING anyone learn anything. She’s just explaining how learning a new language is hard and how people should maybe be a little more understanding of these difficulties instead of assuming that people who don’t follow the “this is America and we speak english here!” saying is because they are lazy or stubborn.

  • Seraphic

    Kat, zgadzam się serdecznie!

    That is, I agree heartily. Most Europeans with post-secondary education seem to speak English and often other languages, too. If they can learn other languages, we anglophones can learn other languages.  

    Meanwhile, the essence of becoming better at a foreign language is being brave and humble enough to risk sounding stupid. 

  • Jeanne Chabot

    You have it just about right.  (Coming from a person who has learned a foreign language not once, but twice, and then been pitched into a place where most people only speak that language.  Exhausting!!)  

    I honestly don’t get how people can hate speaking to someone whose first language is not English.  I’ve seen that a lot.  I guess, as you say, it’s because they’ve never had the opposite experience.  Because trying to talk to someone in a language you don’t master is so much worse than being talked to by someone who does not master your own language.

    Also, I get the impression that English speaking people (English being a dominant language and the go to language now for say, the Chinese guy and the French guy to talk to each other in) have more of a tendency to want everyone to speak their language to them, versus actually trying to learn another language, and speak it well, than say a Frenchman, because they think the world revolves around English.  It doesn’t.  And this makes people of other languages look at English-speaking people as centered on themselves only.

    Come to Québec, and not only will the Québecer NOT get all impatient with you for trying to speak his language, he will actually appreciate the fact that you tried.  (Even if he speaks better English than you do French.)  Because most English-speaking people don’t even try.

    In Montreal, the English have their English schools, which they send their English kids to, and English Colleges and a University too, and they go shop in the English neighbourhoods, and they live in English in a French province all their lives, and never learn French, and their kids and grandchildren never learn it either.  And they expect to be served in English even outside of their English neighbourhood.  So I also get the American annoyance at Hispanic non-integration.  🙂  At least the Hispanic kids eventually learn English at some point.

    • Seraphic

      I think English-speaking people living or visiting in Quebec–speaking as a Canadian anglophone with family in Quebec–are often shy about speaking French because sometimes francophones interrupt us three words into our hesitant French sentences and speak to us in English. Some francophones do give points for trying, but other francophones simply sneer. And if we never get a chance to practise our French–the francophones insisting on speaking to us in English every time we try French–then we never can learn. 

    • What frustrated me the most about living in Montreal was that whenever I would stumble on French my interlocutor would immediately switch to English.  I teach Spanish and study it at the graduate level, and both experience and research have taught me that the only way to really learn a second language is to practice, practice, practice:  to stumble through those difficult sentences until they become less difficult.  Every time a bilingual Montrealais would switch on me it made me feel as though I’d failed and needed to be sent back to the Special Kids class.

  • daisy

    And yet the Koreans, Chinese Vietnamese seem to be able to learn English and all my   Ethiopian, Nigerian, Ghanian, and Somali neighbors can do so. We’ve gotten to the point in this country where you can live here for decades and get along while only speaking Spanish. That’s nuts.

    • Mila48

      Perhaps. But a century ago there were communities in the Dakotas and Minnesota that spoke only German. So how is that different? Every immigrant group that has come before has tried to preserve its language and culture. Eventually, as children start going to school, the second generation is not very fluent in “the mother tongue”, and by the third generation, they no longer speak it at all. English is here to stay.

      A lot of those people you mention who have been able to learn do so because even back in their home countries people are learning English. And not only English, but other languages as well. It seems only Americans–and thankfully, not all of us–are averse to speaking more than one language.

    • Jorge

      Why ?? Spanish was spoken in most of the US territories before than English. Think about that.

    • Marnie

      The “problem” is the proximity to Mexico. Most of the people you named come from countries that are physically and psychologically very far away. Most of them come from dire economic or political situations and plan on not returning. For Mexicans, the hope of going back is always there, so they see their stay in the US as something transitory (in the case of my parents it’s going on 40 years and it did not help that they chose to live in a city with a 60% Spanish speaking population.)

  • Queencoffeebean

    While I agree with the general premise, I guess, because I am an American living in a European country and hardly speak the language.  So I am incredibly grateful to the natives who are gracious and patient while I learn.

    However, your experience in the South-East is probably a lot different from people in the South-West (e.g., Arizona, Texas, California) where the population of Spanish-speakers is a lot denser.   There really are people who come from Mexico, live here for years and years, and never learn to speak the language.  There are many adults choose not to assimilate themselves as an act of defiance.  I have known children of immigrants who are forbidden to speak the English they learn at school at home. 

    This isn’t even a knee jerk position I take because of some resentment I have for Mexican immigrants.  My American cousin has lived in the same European country I do (in a very Americanized area) for six years and still doesn’t speak the language and it drives me nuts. 

  • Katie O’Keefe

    I agree, Kat.  I work in a parish where the preponderance of people speak Spanish as their first language and I have been trying to learn for the last two years.  I am in awe of people who can speak both (or many – my pastor speaks five!) languages fluently. 
     I direct the choirs, which is always interesting – even in English.  It’s a real challenge in Spanish.  You don’t learn phrases like – “Okay now, breathe from your diaphragm and raise your eyebrows when you reach for those high notes, sopranos.”  – in Spanish Class.  One day, I was doing my best to explain something in Spanish and the were being so patient: correcting my grammar, helping me with feminine and masculine nouns…  Finally, one of my choir members said, “Just say it in English.  If you always speak in Spanish, we’ll never learn English.”  So much for my three quarters of Spanish.I think we have to be patient and gracious with people who are new to our language.  It’s tough to learn.  And just because they’re speaking and shopping and worshipping in their native language, doesn’t mean they don’t want to be here and they don’t want to learn.  My German great grandparents never learned to speak English but their children did.  And they still speak “Deutschlisch”.  You wouldn’t believe some of the syntax!  

  • Tim

    Learning a foreign language is very helpful in better understanding your own language.  I didn’t know what direct and indirect objects  were until I learned a foreign language.

    If not for foreign languages, the joys of prepositions would have escaped me from.

  • Keystone

    I learned to speak Catholicism as a kid.  Marvelous lingo!
    Later, I added Christianity verbiage to extend the dialog.

    Been to lots of funerals over a lifetime; few clue in with me what they talk about in Heaven.
    Perhaps God is on the phone and saying:
    Press 1 for Catholicism
    Press 2 for Methodist
    Press 3 for Presbyterian
    Press 4 for Assembly of God; WAIT NO…go directly to Tongues with my Holy Spirit on hold
    Press 5 for Islam
    Press 6 for Hindu
    Press O for Operator for directions straight to Hell

    “Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father.”
    John 16:24-26 

    May our bodies shut up, and our souls speak….every day of this Lent!

    Blessings to you, Kat!

  • doughboy

    Very good point, Kat.  My ancestors landed in Central Missouri from Southern Germany (mid-Missouri is known to resemble Bavaria, apparently) in the 1820’s. My maternal grandparents (born in the 1890’s) were still speaking German at home into the 1940’s. My mother was the first to marry a non-German in 1952.  A good reminder that change takes time and we need to live our faith and see Christ in others – including those immigrants that perhaps make us nervous (islam anyone?)

  • Tcn

    I’m quite certain that both situations exist. There are places in Chicago which have yet to speak English; the people there are Americans, born here, and yet speak Polish and have never had to learn anything else. Same is true of Spanish-speakers in the southwest, particularly parts of AZ and CA. Being a complete mutt, probably with some Native blood alongside the various European ancestors, I have never HAD to learn another language, and yet I can get along in Spanish, Russian and even a smattering of Aleut. Not all Americans are language imbeciles, nor do most of us expect other countries to serve up English when we are abroad. It was nice in Guatemala that so many of the locals spoke English, and took dollars, but it wasn’t entirely necessary. I expect that level of kindness works in both directions.

  • Marnie

    As I am going through my own language learning struggle, I get what you are going through.  This is my fourth time around and it gets a bit easier, however,  not being able to communicate as in your mother tongue is still frustrating. But the moment when you don’t have to search around your brain (going through mine is scary) and the word that you want comes out exactly as you want it… pure bliss. Buena suerte y si puedo ayudarte en algo, ¡encantada!