Today's Topic



Every Child
Should Speak English,
Part II

Part I

Natalia J. Garland

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Let's 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.

It's 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 beaucoup.'
[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 prestige.


1 English
2 French
3 Spanish
4 Russian
5 Arabic
6 Chinese
7 German
8 Japanese
9 Portuguese
10 Hindi/Urdu

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.


English 215,423,557 82.1%
Spanish or Spanish Creole 28,101,052 10.7%
Chinese 2,022,143 0.8%
French (incl. Patois, Cajun) 1,643,838 0.6%
German 1,383,442 0.5%
Tagalog 1,224,241 0.5%
Vietnamese 1,009,627 0.4%
Italian 1,008,370 0.4%
Korean 894,063 0.3%
Russian 706,242 0.3%
Polish 667,414 0.3%
Arabic 614,582 0.2%
Portuguese or Portuguese Creole 564,630 0.2%
Japanese 477,997 0.2%
French Creole 453,368 0.2%
Other Indic languages 439,289 0.2%
African languages 418,505 0.2%
Other Asian languages 398,434 0.2%
Greek 365,436 0.1%
Other Indo-European languages 327,946 0.1%
Hindi 317,057 0.1%
Other Pacific Island languages 313,841 0.1%
Persian 312,085 0.1%
Other Slavic languages 301,079 0.1%
Urdu 262,900 0.1%
Other West Germanic languages 251,135 0.1%
Gujarathi 235,988 0.1%
Serbo-Croatian 233,865 0.1%
Other Native North American languages 203,466 0.1%
Armenian 202,708 0.1%
Hebrew 195,374 0.1%
Mon-Khmer, Cambodian 181,889 0.1%
Yiddish 178,945 0.1%
Navajo 178,014 0.1%
Miao, Hmong 168,063 0.1%
Scandinavian languages 162,252 0.1%
Laotian 149,303 0.1%
Other and unspecified languages 144,575 0.1%
Thai 120,464 0.0%
Hungarian 117,973 0.0%

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.)


  • 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 fair competition.

  • 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 05/19/08).]

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland