Should Speak English,
Natalia J. Garland
resume discussion of the significance of the Spanish language for
Americans, and whether or not Americans should learn Spanish. As a
reminder, I must emphasize that today's essay contains my personal
reactions to and interpretations of recent political statements. In
July of this year, Senator Obama gave a speech in Georgia.
Instead of worrying
about whether immigrants can learn English, because they will learn
English, you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. We should
have every child speaking more than one language.
embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak
English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to
Europe and all we can say is 'Merci
[End of quotes.]
Why should every
American child speak Spanish? Why not Chinese? Or Arabic? Why does
it seem that Spanish, and Spanish only, is associated with
bilingualism? Why should the child of Nigerian immigrants, who is
struggling to learn English as well as maintain his ability to
communicate with his parents in their mother-language, learn Spanish?
And, why not worry about whether immigrants are learning English?
What evidence can Obama offer to assure Americans that immigrants are
learning how to speak, read and write in English?
Why is Obama embarrassed
of Americans who vacation in Europe without being able to speak that
continent's languages? Are there understandable reasons as to why
Americans do not or cannot speak foreign languages? And, why is it
that some people in other countries can speak English so well?
Is it because the Europeans believe that every child should speak
English? Do the Europeans have insight into something that Obama does
not? Should Obama be embarrassed--of himself?
What are the major
languages spoken in the world today? The list below was developed by
George Weber in 1997. Weber rated the world's ten most influential
languages based on the number of native speakers, secondary speakers,
number of countries where the languages are spoken, population of the
countries, financial power of the countries, international use, and
TEN MOST INFLUENTIAL LANGUAGES
It can be seen that
Spanish is definitely a significant language, only third after English
and French. But, is that why Obama thinks every child should learn
Spanish--because it is the third-most influential language in the
world? Why not learn French? Why do the schools in France emphasize
English instead of Spanish?
The fact is that English
is more influential than Spanish. All American children, including
immigrant children and the American-born children of immigrants, should
learn English. They should learn more than basic communication skills.
They should be able to study American and English literature in depth,
and to write academic papers in all subject areas.
American adults do not
speak foreign languages because English is the most influential
language in the world. Bilingualism and multilingualism have never
been a necessity for Americans. There is nothing embarrassing about
that. American schools do not emphasize foreign language instruction,
and language course offerings are few and limited. As a consequence,
Americans seem to lack confidence in their ability to learn foreign
languages. This is not to suggest that Americans dislike other
languages. On the contrary, Americans admire others who can speak
another language, and seem mystified and awed by bilingualism.
Having looked at the
most influential languages in the world, let's now look at the
languages spoken in America. The following chart was compiled from
M.L.A. (Modern Language Association) and 2000 U.S. Census data, and
was accessed from the St. Ignatius High School (Ohio) website. The
chart shows the number of speakers aged five and older, and the
percentage which these speakers represent in the total population.
LANGUAGES SPOKEN IN MAINLAND AMERICA
|Spanish or Spanish Creole
|French (incl. Patois, Cajun)
|Portuguese or Portuguese Creole
|Other Indic languages
|Other Asian languages
|Other Indo-European languages
|Other Pacific Island languages
|Other Slavic languages
|Other West Germanic languages
|Other Native North American languages
|Other and unspecified languages
In America, Spanish is
the second-most significant language. Even so, is it logical to
conclude that every American child should speak Spanish? Why should
all American children learn to speak the language of 10.7 percent of
the population? Why should the Armenian-speakers, Hindi-speakers, or
Thai-speakers learn Spanish? Even if the above chart were adjusted for
2008 (or for 2050), and even though Hispanics are the dominant
sub-culture in some sections of America, it does not necessarily follow
that the citizens of an English-speaking country should learn Spanish.
This is especially true if, as Obama says, Americans do not have to
worry about immigrants learning English.
Why learn any
foreign language? Perhaps that is the real question. What are the
reasons that Americans might want to learn a foreign language? The
next chart is something I devised as a way to answer that question.
(Listed items are not in any particular order.)
FIVE REASONS TO LEARN A LANGUAGE
- Preservation of and participation in a cultural heritage: effecting
identity and self-esteem.
- Personal enrichment (to read literature in the original language,
to travel and speak with foreign people in their own language):
effecting a higher quality of life.
- To do scholarly work in classical literature and religious texts:
effecting academic excellence.
- To conduct business with other countries: effecting
- To work for the government as a translator or in
intelligence-gathering agencies: effecting national security.
According to my
schema, it would make more sense for a child of Polish heritage to
learn Polish, for a lover of Tolstoy's novels to learn Russian, for
a priest to learn Greek and Hebrew, for a toy manufacturer to learn
Chinese, and for a spy to learn Arabic. It would not be beneficial
to Americans if every child learned Spanish. But, every child
should have the opportunity to choose Spanish, from among other
language offerings, as an area of interest or specialization.
There are different reasons for studying different languages. Obama
must explain why he singled out Spanish as somehow more worthy or
more essential than other languages. (Written 07/21/08: bibliography available.)
[NOTE: This is the
third preparatory essay for future writing on what I call the Spanish
Language Movement. To read the other preparatory essays, see Languages in America: Legislation and Costs
(written 03/10/08), Mexico's Cultural Imperialism (written
Until we meet