Why Spanish is not a foreign language in the United States

I watched Election Day coverage from a hospital bed. Like millions of Americans, news that Republican Donald Trump was on his way to winning the presidency of the United States stunned me. I delivered my first child via cesarean only two days earlier.

For months, I had excitedly anticipated my daughter being born in time for America to elect Democrat Hilary Clinton as its first female president. Instead, my daughter’s arrival lined up with the election of a man who during his campaign underscored English-only ideology and blamed immigrants for the economic failure of millions of Americans.

Those assertions are baseless, wrong-headed and deeply troubling for me as an American and new mom.

My daughter’s heritage reflects a history that goes back five centuries when Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to step foot in the present-day United States. That contact manifests in the experience of millions of Americans who identify as Latino. It’s a history too often passed over for more Anglo-friendly narratives. But, contrary to what Trump and others espouse, Spanish is not a foreign language in the United States.

“This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.” Donald Trump told his then-primary race opponent, Jeb Bush, during one televised debate.

According to Shane Goldmacher of Politico, Trump made that remark about Bush speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. Bush also happens to be married to a woman from Mexico and is a former governor of Florida—a state where Spanish explorers arrived in the early 1500s. Those explorers established St. Augustine as the first permanent European settlement in the present-day United States.

Based on those numbers, it’s odd Trump would criticize Bush, or any politician running for national office, for speaking Spanish to prospective voters.

Large swaths of America, including the entire Southwest, were part of Spain and Mexico longer than they have been part of the United States where Spanish has been continuously spoken for centuries. Waves of immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America have carried on the use of Spanish. Close to one in eight Americans speaks Spanish totaling more than 37 million people, according to the Pew Research Center.

Based on those numbers, it’s odd Trump would criticize Bush, or any politician running for national office, for speaking Spanish to prospective voters.

Trump’s statement, however, writes off any sense of history, cultural relevance and reality. He made it clear by saying “we speak English,” indicating that there is a defined “we” and there is a “them.” Throughout his campaign, Trump honed in on the idea that there is a “real America” that is under threat by outsiders—a theme that Conservative Republicans have propagandized for many years.

Then, Trump won the presidency by promising voters that he would “Make America Great Again” by giving them back jobs and economic gains he claimed had been taken by external forces such as immigrants from Mexico.

Trump campaign hatIt’s easy to blame and exploit marginalized people who lack political and economic power. It makes sense to cast Spanish as anti-American. Trump’s chiding Bush asserted that authentic Americans do not speak Spanish and reinforced the decades-old “English only” movement in the United States. Supporters of English-only ideology say they only want everyone in this country to speak the common language and not expect special accommodations if they don’t speak English. That argument seems rational and practical. But it is thinly coated racism, xenophobia and a violation of civil liberties.

The United States does not have an official language. Not on the books. Yet, that hasn’t curbed arguments asserting the English language should be a source of cultural domination.

“Suddenly, English, the greatest unifier in our nation’s history, has come under attack in our government, in our schools and in our courts,” according to U.S. English Inc., a group that lobbies Congress to pass laws that would establish English as the nation’s official language. “The question is no longer what an immigrant can do for his/her adopted country, but how government can adapt to millions who have not assumed their duty to learn America’s language, customs, and culture.”

It is unclear what the group means by “under attack” nor are there specific examples listed on their website. The logic behind legislation pushing English-only is that “it encourages immigrants to learn English to use government services and participate in the democratic process; and it defines a much-needed common sense language policy.”

English is already the dominant language in the United States, and arguably that of the world. The group’s rhetoric implies immigrants are refusing to learn English to the detriment of the rest of the nation.

It’s ridiculous and inflammatory.

Establishing official language laws in America would not help those who are not fluent in English, but instead provide more tools for those in power to further penalize marginalized people such as immigrants.

Those who don’t speak English in America do so at their own peril. My firsthand observations of many immigrants, including my parents, is that they have plenty of incentives to learn English, would love to speak perfect English if they could, and would prefer not to have to face discrimination, ridicule, or poor treatment because they can’t communicate. I can’t count how many times I interpreted for my parents, relatives and random strangers while I was growing up.

Sometimes it was innocuous like asking for something at the grocery store, reading bills and documents or helping someone mail a package at the post office, but other times I was downright embarrassed that my parents weren’t fluent English speakers. I wanted to be like the kids I saw on American sitcoms with wholesome, funny parents who could talk to their kid’s friends and understood the Super Bowl.

I look back and realize how silly my concerns were because I was always able to communicate well with my parents. What bothered me was that the outside world judged them for being different because they were from Mexico.

My father started coming to the United States to work around the age 19. He had a functional command of English, but only spoke it when needed. My mother immigrated at 33 when she married my father. The move proved to be a tough transition for my mom, who to this day, after more than forty years in the United States, speaks a rudimentary, choppy form of English.

Her lack of fluency isn’t from a lack of trying. For years, she spent several evenings each week to take English classes at the community college. And yet, a strong command of English never took.

I don’t believe my mother lacks the intellect to learn English. As a young girl, she was sent to a boarding school where Catholic nuns taught her many subjects including Latin and Greek. She earned a college degree in Mexico in the 1960s when few women were educated. I have wondered if my mother’s trouble with English was more psychological than academic perhaps because she’s never felt fully accepted in America. Her degree of fluency in English ranges depending on the situation—the more comfortable she feels, the better she communicates.

I have come to believe that learning another language is simply a huge challenge for some people. It’s not because they don’t want to attain proficiency or don’t learn English out of spite. Many people it seems can’t grasp that nuance and instead categorize people who struggle with speaking English as averse to American values. I would argue that in America, the land of the free, people have the right to speak whatever language they choose.

I consider myself bilingual by necessity. I learned Spanish as a child because, without it, I could not communicate with my parents. But at the same time, I spoke in English with my siblings and at school. When my parents could afford to pay for cable service, they only did so to watch one channel: the Spanish-language network Univision, which they tuned into from morning to night. My mother credits English-language cartoons, notably “Popeye,” for teaching my older sister to speak like an American and demanding spinach at the dinner table. Somehow this televised education was enough for my siblings and me to enter English-speaking classrooms and thrive.

My mother, who had been a teacher in Mexico, wanted her children to learn English so we could do well in school, but also learn Spanish so we would not lose our Mexican heritage. I can’t recall a time in my life when I didn’t speak two languages, but I do recall having an inherent sense of when it was time to speak Spanish and when it was time to speak English. I never questioned this dichotomy—it was my reality.

Yet, when many kids who grow up in Spanish-speaking homes enter school, their ability to speak a foreign language is treated like a disadvantage and a condition in need of remedy. In the recent election, Californian voters, myself included, voted to pass Proposition 58, a law that would as NPR’s Claudio Sanchez described, “officially end the era of English-only teaching and re-introduce instruction in English and a second language as an option.”

Supporters of English-only education argue children need to master English in American schools and not be taught in their native languages. The former part of that argument makes sense, but the latter part perplexes me: why does mastery of English preclude a child from mastering two languages?

That thinking, which unfortunately influenced education policy for decades, now appears outdated. Bilingualism is gaining steam as a hot trend these days gaining the Yuppie stamp of approval with thousands of middle-class American parents clamoring for their children to learn more than one language. An NPR piece published on Nov. 26, 2016, titled “6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual Education,” lists those benefits as attention, empathy, reading skills, school performance and engagement, diversity and integration, and protection against cognitive decline and dementia. More researchers have been publishing studies backing up those claims and encouraging foreign language instruction in early years, which would represent a major shift in American schools where most students don’t study foreign languages until high school.

I decided to study French when I was in high school because I thought that would expand my horizons more than taking Spanish, which many of my fellow native speakers did for the “easy A.” Having knowledge of one romance language did make it simpler to grasp French, especially the grammar and sentence structure, but I nonetheless had to put in effort to learn it. I didn’t just “pick it up” the way other people describe learning a language. I studied French for two years in high school, one in college and for a summer in Paris between my junior and senior year of college. My entire life, I never strained to switch between English and Spanish, but the first time I went to a café by myself in Paris, I couldn’t even order a sandwich.

My three years of study in the United States hadn’t given me the confidence and ease of breaking into French when I needed it. Multilingualism is common in Paris, and whenever my French failed me at a boutique or a restaurant, attendants would switch to English or Spanish without me having to ask. I tried to speak French as much as possible to force myself out of my comfort zone. Over the course of my ten weeks in Paris, my French improved by the time I was about to leave. I found myself giving directions and hanging out with locals. I was a bit disappointed to realize that as good as my French was becoming, it would never be as good or feel as natural as my Spanish.

My experience learning French nonetheless made me feel grateful that I had the opportunity to learn Spanish at an early age and that speaking multiple languages is a privilege that does not make me less of an American.

Hours after my daughter was born, my mother and mother-in-law came into the recovery room to see us. “Esta niña si va hablar Español,” my happy mom said, announcing to everyone that her newest grandchild would learn Spanish. How could she not since both sides of her family speak it?

My husband and I fully intend to teach our daughter Spanish, which we know will take an extraordinary effort. My mother believes that American-born children will learn English no matter what because it’s unavoidable. But embracing Spanish—being able and wanting to speak it—is a choice. I do fear that my strong desire to raise a bilingual niña will prove unsuccessful.

We have stocked her nursery with bilingual kids books and hope to enroll her in a bilingual school. I speak to her in Spanish as much as possible but often find myself slipping into English. I wonder if she will be able to navigate both languages as quickly I have or if hearing two languages will merely confuse her. I don’t know, but I know I must try.

In the days that followed Trump’s election, many of my friends and colleagues took to social media to express anger, heartbreak, and horror at what could become of our nation and its civility. Perhaps because I had just become a mother, I felt a sense of hope that America could be a better nation in spite of a divisive, unethical and antagonistic leader such as Trump. One person did not build America nor can destroy its true history and values of independence, individualism, and self-worth. For too long, the legacy of Spanish in America has been stripped of its significance. I hope to instill in my daughter that as an American, she should speak Spanish not just because it might help her score more points on the SAT, but because Spanish has been an integral part of American history from before it was America. That Spanish is no more foreign in the United States than English. My hope is that she can see through divisive politicians like Trump who attack, dismiss, and try to invalidate anyone who is different, disagrees with them, or is simply an easy scapegoat. Trump was wrong when he said “we” don’t speak Spanish. En América, sí hablamos Español.
Blanca Torres is a writer for the San Francisco Business Times.

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