04 February 2014

I Speak American English, American Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese

*I had this post in mind for later this month, but with the whole sudden Coca-Cola debacle of this weekend, I thought it would be more timely now.

It's scary for me to write about controversial topics, and even scarier to write about the kind of topics that get me fighting mad. Maybe I could blame that temper on my Irish side. I don't know. In general, I'm a peaceable person. And I tend to believe that arguing never really changes anyone's mind, and that's why I don't do it. But once in a while I get angry.

Notably, once upon a time I got very mad at a birthday party and got into quite the argument with a relative. The kind of argument where Angel puts his arms around me in order to hold me back and the kind which I feel ashamed of afterwards and go around apologizing for the disruption.

This is a rare event. I'm still ashamed of that fight. But I'm not ashamed of what I was fighting about.

The topic brought up was language. More specifically, language and multilingual education.

You're probably aware that many Americans take the viewpoint that English is the language of America, and that anyone who wants to be in America needs to learn English to the point of fluency and forget any other language they may speak or suffer dire consequences. Some people are so proud of the connection between America and the English language that they get angry when they see a sign in Spanish or when they eavesdrop on a non-English conversation {or watch a multilingual Coke commercial}. I went to school with people who were upset because our college required that each student take 2 years of a foreign language, because they wholeheartedly believed that studying any language outside of English was a sheer waste of time and effort. I've known others who believe that Spanish shouldn't be taught in elementary and middle schools in America.

That's what some people believe, and they believe it with every fiber of their being. And mostly, I can just leave them alone. Not because I think they're right, but because I'm pretty sure that nothing I can say can change their minds. But sometimes, I get angry, and then my reasonable attitude vanishes.

 A few of my beloved bilingual Americans.

There are many different arguments on my side, the side which rebukes the attitude which places no value on any language outside of English being used within the borders of the USA, but I will only  focus on two aspects in this post: 1) Practicality and 2) Compassion.

1) Practicality

It's been scientifically proven that bilingualism and multilingualism is good for the brain. It's just plain healthy for you to speak a couple languages. Speaking a language is a learned skill that can benefit anyone. In high school, my friend told me this joke: "A person who speaks 3 languages is called trilingual, a person who speaks 2 languages is called bilingual, and a person who speaks only one language is called American."

That made me sad. It's not a bad thing for people to speak more than one language. Multilingual education shouldn't be seen as non- or anti-American, and it shouldn't be fought against. Back in the day, those who were considered well-educated did speak more than one language, including the ancient languages of philosophy and literature. It's probably not realistic, but why wouldn't it be a good thing if most Americans spoke two or more languages?

2) Compassion

Maybe my experience gives me a different perspective than some Americans. You see, I've moved to a country where I don't speak the government's language, and I have also studied four different foreign languages. Because of that, I know that it's HARD. It's hard to be in a new and unfamiliar place where you can't even understand the road signs. Learning a new language to the point of achieving real communication is very difficult--and that's for me, someone who is both educated in and passionate about language education! Learning a new language comes much easier to me than it does to many people, and it's hard for me. So I can only imagine how difficult it is to learn English while trying to live in America for the first time.

In college, I volunteered at an English tuition center for immigrants. The middle-aged lady I worked with was from Rwanda. She had been a career woman in her own country. But her husband's job had brought him here, she'd followed him, and now she was struggling to string sentences together, learning a brand new language at the age of 50. She could barely ask for what she needed at the grocery store--but she wasn't stupid. She was in the process of learning a language, a process that can be extremely long and slow.

Life in America is pretty hard if you don't speak English. People can complain all they want about the resources that do exist for speakers of other languages, such as Spanish translations of signs and interpreters at hospitals--but even with these resources, it isn't too easy to live and work and go to school and be a part of society here without speaking English. Angel, who is not an immigrant, by the way, started kindergarten without speaking a word of English. Do you know what happened to him? He flunked kindergarten. And yeah, an extra year back then gave him the time he needed to catch up and learn the English he needed to know, but it's much harder for adults who may not have the time or money to devote to English classes and may not be the kind of geniuses who can learn a language all on their own.

Those Americans who are so angered by people who don't speak English might find the energy that they put into their anger better directed by volunteering at an ESL tuition center, or in otherwise helping immigrants to be able to learn the English they need to speak in order to have a shot at life in America.

My conclusion is, when it comes to language in America,

1) Give language learning a shot. Even if you don't want to learn a new language yourself, don't claim that it's "un-American" for other people to study languages. Some of America's founding fathers spoke or read 2 or 3 languages because they were well-educated men. Are you going to claim that Thomas Jefferson was anti-everything that America stands for because he was educated in several languages besides English? Speaking a couple languages isn't a bad thing, it will only benefit you to speak your native language well, plus a couple extra.

2) Have a compassionate heart toward those who can't speak English but live in this country. If English is your native language, you didn't do anything to earn that. It just so happened that the people who were around you when you were a crawling infant were English speakers, and that's how you picked it up. Not everyone started out that way.

I'm a Christian and an American who is passionate about languages. Practicality and Compassion, that's what I'll fight for.


And on a note of pure curiosity, comment and let me know which languages you may speak or have studied in the past. I always find it interesting to see which languages people are drawn to.
Martha Hokenson said...

I'm surprised that people feel learning a foreign language in school is a waste of time! Purely on a selfish note, what if you want to travel someday? That foreign language class would give you a tool to get out of the tourist pack and into the little corners of the country/city you visit, where you'd have to know the local language to get around. I'd love to learn German, I wish I had thought to start studying it when I was younger and my brain was more pliant!

Whenever people get so hot-headed about stupid things like this, I tend to roll my eyes and walk away. There's no arguing with idiots, I guess--they'll never see how they're wrong.

Erica said...

Ooooh you got me all fired up on this one!
I was really shocked by the response to that advert - I had no idea that this was such an issue. I agree with you 100% because of the exact same two reasons : practicality and compassion. English is pretty controversial in South Africa too (language of the oppressors, snuffing out indigenous languages), and it usually gets heated. English really does open up a whole LOT of opportunities for people, and I find it so sad how so many kids would be doing badly in school or varsity because of a fundamental problem with their English. And yet, it's so narrow minded to believe that English is ALL we need to get by, when so many doors for opportunity for connecting with people and experiencing new things are opened by speaking another language.
Plus, being not 100% capable in German right now reeeeally opens my heart for immigrants - I know I'm intelligent enough to have a complex thought on a subject, but so often I have to express it so stupidly because I just don't have the words. I hate how I don't feel like me when I speak because of the barrier.
I have such admiration for the kids I tutor who speak Arabic at home, German at school, and still learn French and English.
I speak English fluently and German not as fluently, and have studied Afrikaans, IsiZulu, and French. I tried a lesson of Spanish but just couldn't get those pretty-sounding R's... I gargle them and mangle the poor language. :( ;)

Unknown said...

I love your post and agree with you!

I was raised bilingual (German and Polish) and here in Germany you have to learn at least two different foreign languages to get the highest possible high school diploma. In order to get that one, I studied English and French.

My mom is Polish and my stepdad with whom she's been since I was 8 years old, is Croatian and we spent a lot of time in both countries growing up. I understand most of Croatian and speak some.

Because Polish and Czech is very similar, I also understand a lot of that and when I stayed in the Czech Republic, I was able to understand most of what was talked about after 3 days. If you speak a language with a certain origin, it is not that hard to get adjusted to another Language with the same origin.

My little sister (Now 9) was taught Polish and Croatian since birth. When she went to preschool at the age of 3 she didn't know one word in German but learned it in about a quarter year and is now trilingual and it works perfectly for her.

I also love different languages and think that it is awesome to speak as many languages as you can, but I also think that if you move to another county, you should put effort into learning the native language to participate in everyday life and get around well.

jackie jade said...

this is a great post! my mom moved to America from South Korea when she was in her 20s and had to learn English. she still doesn't speak perfectly so I get really mad at people who are rude to her about it. I have personally told off some strangers about it and totally not ashamed ha. I took German in high school, but then I took Korean in college as my language and it was so hard. I was taking it in an academic setting and had to work harder at that class than I did with many of my other courses. It gave me a new appreciation for my mother learning a whole new language in a foreign country. People's intolerance can be really sad - can't believe all the backlash over that Coke commercial.
-- jackie - jade and oak

Allie @ Everyday Adventures said...

I wish I had worked harder to become fluent in Spanish in college; I took a few years in high school and then college, and was getting pretty good at it, but then I stopped taking classes and feel like I lost a lot of it since then. I still want to learn it well enough to speak conversationally.

Haley said...

Amen sister! I think you're totally right. It would be incredibly difficult to live somewhere and not know the language, or just be learning the language. In Canada we have English and French as our languages. But, I only know English. We had a terrible French program in my high school, so I took French as a second language all throughout high school but I didn't really get anywhere with it. I find it incredibly useful to be bilingual and it also gives you great career opportunities. You can't work at an airline in Canada without being bilingual, it's 100% a requirement. !!!

Laura B said...

Learning another language is a great idea especially for the reasons you stated. Many countries across Europe teach students English so why can't we try and learn another language? I am far from fluent in Spanish, but grateful for the knowledge I gained and appreciation for learning another language and how hard it is!

Moonofsilver said...

Hehee, I'm of two minds on this. One, I think that learning other languages is important. Two, I think if you move somewhere permanently you should attempt to learn the language of where you are living. At least one of them, so you can communicate with your neighbors. If I moved to Russia, wouldn't expect my neighbor to learn English to talk to me. I'd work really hard at learning Russian!

On the other hand, I dislike how many English people go to other countries and expect to speak in English and get mad when said natives can't understand them. And I also dislike how some people from other countries come here to live and expect to be catered to in their language indefinitely. This is America, and our national language is English. So I do expect them to learn it if they want to interact with the majority of the states, and I don't think that is wrong.

Patty said...

Girl this is great...I'll admit I probably had that thought too for awhile. The fact is that our country is really founded on all types of cultures and languages coming here. I mean I'll admit that when I have traveled to other countries many times, I certainly don't fluently know the language there, so it has made me re-think my old thoughts:)
I honestly looking back I wish I took more seriously learning a second language...great post, thanks Rachel! :D

Marlen said...

I feel like the people that get mad they need to learn a second language in school are short changing themselves- it might not be something you enjoy but there's no way it *wont* come in handy! I mean, everyone in europe knows a minimum of THREE languages. I speak fluent Polish and I can only say it helped me. You get paid more, you can actually communicate with people that aren't strong in English, and it's easier to learn other languages. But I have seen instances where Americans snap or rush people that don't know fluent English, and it just boils my blood. Them not knowing a language strongly doesn't in any way reflect on the person's intelligence- I just don't get why they would become irritated with them and try to make them feel stupid. Ignorant people man, ignorant people.

xo marlen
Messages on a Napkin

Angi said...

I was going to leave a comment saying basically this exact same thing so I'll just say ditto. ;)

Whitney @ EHFAR said...

I took two years of Spanish in high school and two years in college. I wanted to learn and be fluent, but it was hard. I just couldn't do it. I tried briefly last year, but decided that it isn't in the cards for me. I have mad respect for people that know multiple languages!

I also have heard that "joke" about a person that speaks one language is called an American. Sad.

I used to work with a few clients at my past job that only spoke Swahili and French, so an interpreter was needed. It was still difficult communicating based on them not understanding certain words or phrases. Imagine them being without the interpreter, which was only there because of me. I would be frustrated not knowing English and trying to navigate here.

I can't believe people were offended by the commercial. I think a lot of people like being negative and complaining. They also have forgot their ancestors were not from America and came from other countries.

Susannah said...

I agree with you for the most part. I think that it's very important for Americans to learn multiple languages. It's ethnocentric to believe that our lanuage is the only one we should know! On the other hand, though, I do think that those who come to America should attempt to learn the language - at least the basic language - as a means of living life in the American cuture. (That is, unless they live in a part of America where they do not interact with English speaking Americans.) It's so hard for me - working at a doctors office - when patients come in and do not speak a lick of English. I try to communicate with them as best I can but that's not always doable. That being said - when I lived in Taiwan, we made sure we learned as much Chinese as we were able.

Lenya said...

Same here, so I just second the. Great post BTW Rachel!!

Amanda - Voyage of the MeeMee said...

I agree that people need to be more open minded... but, I think that goes for EVERYONE. Not just us as Americans, but, also those who come to America. I think it's a case of people needing to meet in the middle and work TOGETHER rather than feeling like one person is better than the other, and in my opinion... that's what a lot of this boils down to. Not who's more practical, etc like you're saying... but who thinks they're better - and that's some bullshit right there!
Well said though! :)

Helene in Between said...

i totally agree with you!! and i do think we all, everywhere need to be more openminded. and i am just so in shock at all the languages you speak! that's amazing!

Hima Rajana said...

I knew I had to read this when I saw this on my Twitter feed, especially after hearing about the response to the Coca-Cola ad. Frankly, I'm disappointed, because I feel like Americans in particular need to make an effort to be more openminded in a lot of ways. It's not up to us to like Ramen or pho or tandoori chicken and consider ourselves accepting of a culture. We have to accept all of it. The idea of America as a melting pot is not founded on the basis that everyone comes here to become American and go to baseball games and eat hot dogs and develop a Southern twang, but rather on the positive outcome of the positive elements of each culture.
I completely agree with you on the importance of being multilingual. I speak 3 languages fluently, and I'm working on learning Hindi, so that'll make four! Great post, Rachel!

xo, Hima
Hima Hearts

Midnight Cowgirl said...

I think it is hard to be reasonable when people are being stupid. I thought the Coke commercial was beautiful, and I think it is sad that so many people feel threatened by languages other than English.

Michelle said...

I agree with Carolynn 100%. I am like you in that I adore languages and I think it's important to learn other languages, but I also believe that people living here permanently need to make an effort to speak the language and not expect everyone to cater to them.

Suzanne said...

I agree as well. I'm Canadian and had no idea about this Coke commercial. It is great to speak other languages but important to learn and communicate well in the official language of the country where you've chosen to live. I know many people that have lived in Canada all of their lives and simply never made the effort to learn to speak English. They didn't feel it was necessary. It is sad because they are then only able to stay in a small circle of family, friends and other people from their culture and not integrate with the society where they have chosen to live. It creates barriers.


Jennifer Prod said...

you produce inspiring and soulful posts when you get angry :) i definitely agree with you on the need for language/cultural acceptance in the us. when i studied abroad my junior year, i was gobsmacked by how underprepared i was (even as an advanced italian student) and then again when i moved to mexico the next year (more cultural shock than language, but still.) props to you for speaking your mind, and again for learning all those languages -- very impressive :)

Meagan said...

When I saw the commercial I really thought nothing of it except that I couldn't sing(or torture) everyone around me with the whole song. I didn't even know it was an issue until the next day.

With that being said I agree with Carolyn above. I wouldn't move to Russia and not learn Russian. I think there should definitely be some effort happening. I have no issue with foreign languages, though. This year I started learning Spanish because my boyfriend was learning Spanish. He backpacked through South America for 2 months and needed to learn the language! It is a lot of fun to hear conversations in Spanish and pick out the words I know!

Mrs. Cheerio said...

I am also in agreement. I think there are SO many wonderful benefits to learning as many languages as possible, but at least a second. I've tried my hand at two others and have it very difficult to bridge the many language/memory gaps when I am not experiencing immersion, but still- amazing learning opportunity.

I didn't see the Coke commercial, I should Youtube it and see what it's about...

The only issue I've had with this topic is this: sometimes my children's toys (electronic ones) come with a second language built in for early learning. It really bothers me that I don't get to choose which language I'd prefer them hearing/learning myself. I don't speak any other language fluently, however, I'd like to have a say in what they're learning.

Mica said...

Wow I had no idea some Americans were so against learning languages! We learn foreign languages at school here too.

Most of mine is forgotten, but I spent a few years in school learning French. I can understand and read more than I can string together myself in sentances. And now, I'm learning a little Mandarin. My typing of it is much better than my pronunciation of it though, haha. Luckily there are a lot of people who speak it who can help me. I've even taught some French to a colleague in return for him teaching me a bit of mandarin, haha. It worked :)

Away From Blue

The Lady Okie said...

Such a great post! I definitely agree with you about practicality and compassion. I speak English, of course, and I also studied Spanish in high school and became pretty proficient in it. Unfortunately, I didn't have a change to practice after high school, and I lost most of it. But I definitely wish I could speak it fluently. I think it would be very handy. I am interested to know how you keep up with your Chinese on a daily bases. Besides talking, do you watch movies and listen to things in Chinese?

Madison @ Wetherills Say I Do said...

I love this post!! I am like you, I get all fired up when people start talking about languages. I speak Spanish and grew up in New Mexico where many people are Hispanic and speak Spanish as their first language. I totally agree that as human beings, not even just as Americans, we need to be more compassionate. If you hate that people don't speak English in America, go help them to learn it! This post made some great points :)

Eva Marie Taylor said...

I am so mad at myself for not taking Spanish in high school, and I love that they are starting to teach Spanish in schools in elementary school now! I've contemplated buying Rosetta Stone just to learn!
Eva Marie

AwesomelyOZ said...

Where I am there isn't folks against learning languages but more of an intolerance towards immigrants who are not learning the English language. I was born and raised until the age of 8 in New York City and in Manhattan there is a high Dominican population as such, the Hispanic population there are more resistant towards learning English since Spanish is very predominant in the area. When my family moved to Northern Virginia my mother had to pick up more English but is still, after 20 years in this country, at a very elementary level speaker. I however thankfully speak fluent English, Spanish, American Sign Language and am picking up Russian for fun. :P Great topic Rachel! Happy Hump Day - Iva

Tayler Morrell said...

I worked at a pizza buffet in high school. Many of my co-workers were immigrants.They would speak Spanish while they cooked the pizzas and I would work the buffet, making sure it was stocked for our customers. The immigrants, who could speak English, never had to interact with the customers--they just made the pizzas (and were very good friends to us). One day, they were speaking in Spanish and a customer told me, "If they are to work in America, they have have to speak in English. They should not be speaking Spanish and working. It's bothering me. Let me talk to your manager." I wanted to tell him, "You're bothering me" and some other bad words. But, I didn't. I was furious, though, at his intolerance and stupidity.

Being Reese 2 said...

Yes. Just yes to all of this. I honestly didn't even know it was a controversy until yesterday. I just don't understand. Are we that ethnocentric that we flip out when we see a person from another country speaking their native tongue in "our" country? Or how about when people speak with an accent. It irritates me to no end to see someone picking on someone's accent. My response is typically, well sure they have an accent, but they are also speaking another language. How many languages can you speak?

I admire anyone who has taken the time to learn another language. That willpower and desire to learn is more attractive than any physical characteristic a person could have. I always tell Mr. A "you had me at "anyoung haseyo" ;)

Liz said...

The uproar about that commercial would break my heart if not for what you said about arguing — some people just cannot be swayed. As someone born and raised in America but who is ethnically Latin American and has spent time living in a Spanish-speaking country, I've had a chip on my shoulder about how my culture is perceived by some. I'm sure that many people who show disdain for someone living here who can't speak English have never tried to speak another language.

I speak English, Spanish, and took two years of French that I wish I'd continued with. I find people who speak multiple languages so worldly, intellectual and sexy. They just seem at home everywhere and even brave.

Unknown said...

What a great post! Most people are actually surprised to hear that the US doesn't actually have an official language- they just assume English is it. I moved to Sweden 7 months ago, and although mostly everyone speaks good English, and only 9 million people in the world speak Swedish- I'm certainly trying to learn it! Language is a very valuable tool. Found your post from the SITS girls and think its great!

Savvyworkinggal said...

I made a new friend last year from Serbia. She is fluent in Serbian, Italian, English and French. She can also understand Spanish. She works part-time at my local library and studying to be an elementary teacher. She is terrified she will never get a teaching job because of her accent - which I think doesn't exist, but she disagrees with me. She knows more about the English language than I do and probably most other Americans as well.

Leslie Harris said...

I love that Coca-Cola commercial! I grew up speaking both English and Spanish fluently, which is good because I now live in Mexico, and have always been fascinated with different languages. If I could, I would love to learn French & Italian too.

Alli @ Allena Mistral said...

I love this post! I have a small smattering of many different languages that I can bring out at any given time, but I'm not fluent in any language other than English. I do, however, believe that Americans need better ENGLISH education as well. Some of my students who speak ONLY English have a very hard time stringing together well formulated sentences. I'm not saying I'm perfect at it either, but it's an important skill. I think if people learn other languages too, it helps with the English learning.

Charlotte said...

My husband and I are very pro-languages. I used to be able to speak German - I studied it for 6 years - and while my husband doesn't speak any other languages, he wishes he does. When we have school-aged children, we would love to send them to a language immersion school. (A French immersion school just happens to be a few blocks away!) It's so important to give them a global perspective - America isn't the end all, be all in this world.

Catherine Gacad said...

i am really surprised because i've never encountered a single person who thinks that studying another language is a bad idea. that's a really unfortunate belief if so.

Rachel said...

I totally agree with you. Thanks for sharing!!
I learned Spanish for 1 year in high school and LOVE the language!!! While I can't speak much of it, I have attended multi-cultural worship services where some songs have been in Spanish and some people have spoken Spanish - and I have actually understood the basics! I had a friend who went on a mission trip to Spanish-speaking countries and came back to share with my youth group, and we planned a "joke" that she's start speaking Spanish to the youth group and I would "translate" for her (making it all up, of course!) - but it turned out I could actually understand her!! That was awesome!
My husband is from Brasil, so I am learning Portuguese. I'm actually finding it harder than Spanish - maybe because I am actually speaking to people in Portuguese, rather than just to a computer screen like I was when learning Spanish =P
My goal is to be fluent in Portuguese and I would also love to learn another language.

Jeffrey & Shannon said...

I studied Spanish in high school and retained almost all that I learned... until I moved to China and studied Mandarin! When I moved back to the states and got married and settled in Texas, there was plenty of opportunity to use my Spanish with adults I'd encounter daily who didn't speak English... but even though I *knew* that I could converse with them, every time I'd open my mouth, the Mandarin would come out. lol Then we adopted a few kids from Ukraine and I loved picking up Russian phrases - a few of which we still use, even though my Ukrainian children no longer remember any Russian. Now my husband and I throw around a few Mandarin phrases when we want to speak secretly without the kids knowing what we're saying, but after living in Texas for almost 11 years, it isn't uncommon for me to blurt out a sentence containing English, Spanish and Mandarin. Who knows what our poor kids will end up speaking by the time they're teenagers! :)

nancy john said...

actually english is spoken throughout the world because it is one of the most important languages and alot of countries make thier students learn it

combining Two Sentences