America: Land of the Free-to-Speak-Whatever-Language-You-Want

At the time of this writing, I haven’t been back to the US properly for nearly a year and a half. (Stepping onto “American soil” for 20 minutes last year at the US consulate in Fuengirola to get a document I needed for my civil union doesn’t count.) My boyfriend has never been. We’re hoping to change that ASAP—I even bought him a nice luggage set for Christmas/Reyes back in December for him to use on the eventual trip across the pond. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for nearly the entire two and a half years we’ve been dating, and I’m happy to see that he’s excited, too.

We were originally planning to go back in February or March this year, but then things got busy for him at work which put a pause on our plans. And it ended up being a blessing in disguise, considering the horrendous winter weather Ohio was facing at that point in time. (Possibly a bit too much of a culture shock for someone who has seen snow exactly once in his 26 years.) No big deal, I thought. We’ll go when it’s warmer, maybe escape the scorching hot death that is summer in Córdoba. Visions of road trips to Cedar Point and all-American Fourth of July barbecues danced in my head. To see the real America, I thought, there’s no better time of year than summer.

IMG_5520
Okay, it’s Christmas here but you get the point.

But lately, I’m not even sure what the real America is anymore. Everyone has heard the age-old saying that we’re a “melting pot” of cultures, nationalities, languages and more. (In fact, if you’re from my generation or the one before it, you might have even heard Schoolhouse Rock singing about “the Great American Melting Pot.” If you have that song in your head now, so do I.) How “great” are we, however, if we’re too sensitive to the other ingredients being added to the proverbial pot?

By now, everyone’s probably heard about the May 15 event in which New York lawyer Aaron Schlossberg brutally berated Spanish-speaking workers at a cafe for speaking their native language, even going so far as to threaten to call ICE. Less than two weeks later, a Border Patrol agent questioned two women in Minnesota for forty minutes after hearing them speak Spanish. The kicker? Both were born-and-bred American citizens. And these are just two examples of incidents that have, unfortunately, become all too common in recent years.

Now, my boyfriend knows English. Much more than he gives himself credit for. His reading and writing skills are damn near perfect. So is his speaking, when he works up the confidence to use it. A lot of that lack of confidence has to do with the English education he received growing up, which was not the greatest. He’s told me that he had English classes at school multiple times a week from third grade up until senior year of high school, and in all those years they never once did any speaking exams. (Spain’s English-language education system is slowly improving, thanks to measures like bilingual schools and the language assistant program, but it still has a long way to go.) As a result, he doesn’t have much confidence when speaking, and is not super comfortable speaking English with anyone who is not me, or even within earshot of other people out in public. We will most likely speak Spanish between the two of us when we’re in the US.

english spanish cards
Lovely cards in English and Spanish from my students two years ago.

I hear about these incidents like the two I referenced above and shudder to think that it could easily happen to the two of us while we’re there. It’s hard to feel “proud to be an American” when the ugly reality is the fact that being publicly scolded or questioned for speaking to the person I love in his native language, in my country, is a very real possibility.

The news of both incidents made it across the pond. Just last week, Spain’s national newspaper, El País, published an article about the discrimination Spanish speakers face in the US. (You can read it in English here, o en español pinchando aquí). It was a very well-written and researched piece, but not exactly the kind of PR that the US would want potential Spanish-speaking visitors to see.

The article does draw attention to the fact that, in many cases, Spanish speakers are being increasingly catered to in the US. We’re a country where “where advertisements are in Spanish, public services offer bilingual customer help and Spanish speakers are readily available to take your order.” Case in point: my mom regularly sends my boyfriend pictures of Spanish menus and signs from all over the greater Columbus area.

However, I do wish they had touched more on the public backlash to the incidents described above. I wasn’t in the US when either of those things happened, but from what I could see on social media, people were angry, to say the least. Schlossberg’s law office received a slew of one-star ratings on Yelp, and a fundraising account was even set up to hire a mariachi band to play outside his home. The money was raised in no time and the band played on. Suffice it to say that people were angry and upset at his actions, which do not reflect the attitudes of Americans as a whole.

I was proud to see that so many Americans came together to condemn the prejudiced actions of this one individual, and it filled me with hope that maybe my boyfriend and I will be okay and have a perfectly normal time speaking Spanish together in the US. At the very least, I like to think that for every one American who may have the nerve to call us out, there will be dozens more to back us up.

east side gallery berlin
One of my favorite panels on the East Side Gallery in Berlin: people of all different origins working together to tear down the walls that divide us—painted onto the Berlin Wall itself.

However, we can’t stop there. While coming together to support speakers of other languages after major news events is great, we need to channel that passion into our everyday lives. English is not the official language of the United States (I will repeat this until I’m blue in the face. If you’re still not convinced, ask the Founding Fathers themselves, who saw no need to establish an official language while writing the Constitution—and moreover, didn’t want to alienate their fellow non-English-speaking Americans who had helped aid the fight for independence. What a concept!). That being said, we could be making so much more of an effort to recognize the importance of learning other languages—and actually act on it by bettering our foreign language education.

Part of the problem lies in lack of consistency. I’m lucky in that I had a great experience learning Spanish in high school and teachers that encouraged me to go on and continue my studies in college. My level has gotten high enough that I’ve lost my American accent while speaking—I now sound vaguely foreign, and most native speakers here in Spain can’t believe that I started learning Spanish when I was just 14. In my school district, eighth grade was the absolute earliest you could start taking Spanish classes. It became mandatory in high school, where in order to graduate you had to take either three years of the same language or two years each of two separate languages. That being said, there are other school districts that teach languages starting in kindergarten all the way up through high school. On the other hand, many don’t require any kind of language education at all, period, and students go their entire academic careers without so much as seeing the inside of a foreign language textbook. I’m no expert, but larger statewide or even national efforts to increase language education in schools could help tremendously (or at the very least, make it look like we’re actually trying to not be the butt of jokes any longer).

spanish class
My high school Spanish class with our clearly very Mexican-looking Day of the Dead shrine. (Built for a turtle that lived a crazy life, apparently.)

Simply put, if we want to catch up to the rest of the world, we need to be doing much more to actively prioritize language learning. Here in Spain, you cannot graduate from university if you do not have at least a B1 (intermediate) level in a foreign language—you have to take the exam and turn in the certificate saying you passed in order to receive your diploma. And while the company I work for teaching English online to children in China offers a sister program through which American children can learn Mandarin Chinese online with native speakers, it’ll be a while before it catches up to the success VIPKID has had in China. Yes, speaking another language is seen as a plus on resumes and job applications, but we need to be doing more to help applicants get there.

monolingual
We can do better! (Source)

And for the record, Spain does have an official language, and yet they don’t use it as a weapon against speakers of other languages. I speak English out in public pretty regularly here, whether it’s with visiting family members who don’t speak a lick of Spanish or simply with other English-speaking expats who do know Spanish but simply appreciate the chance to speak in their first language. In nearly three years here, I have never once been berated or threatened by a Spanish person for not speaking Spanish, nor have I ever heard of it happening to anyone else. Likewise, when you walk into a Vodafone store, there’s a small touchscreen kiosk where you give them some brief information about why you’re there so they can give you a number. The first prompt: selecting your language between Spanish and English. I’ve never heard anyone say anything remotely close to, “Why do we have to choose SPANISH when we’re in SPAIN? Those English speakers need to learn the language or get out.”

Foreign languages aren’t just encouraged here in Spain—they’re celebrated. As they should be. After all, if someone near you is speaking a language that you don’t, that immediately means they have something they could teach you. In fact, if that language happens to be English, many people here in Spain will practically insist that you teach them. The teller at my bank inquired as to whether or not I teach private classes. So did the maintenance guy who came to my apartment to fix the water heater last year. And it’s not limited to English—I’ve had parents of students ask me if I know any native French or German speakers who could teach their kids those languages. I think that’s amazing, and those kids will have so many opportunities in the future because of it.

 

I love my country, and I know that a few bad apples will not ruin the whole bunch. I like to think that the majority of Americans are good, kindhearted people who are warm and welcoming towards differences. Only when we start acting on that passion will we truly be able to make America great again.

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