If you visit any of the scores of language immersion programs in Latin America, you’d think that Americans are thrilled to learn Spanish. And anyone who attended a four year college or university probably had a least a few friends who spent a semester in Spain, Guatemala, or Argentina.
But set foot in the United States and you’ll find a different sentiment about learning another language, especially if it’s Spanish. For every newspaper article about the need to hire more bilingual police officers or court interpreters providing their services, you’ll find a litany of the same complaints. These include: my grandma came from Italy and she learned English so Hispanics better too; why are my tax dollars paying police a salary differential for speaking the language of the illegals?; and if you don’t learn English, go back to your country?
Why is going abroad and learning some Spanish celebrated as a way to expand your mind, learn about a new culture, put some “Latin flavor” in your life, and add a new experience to your resume but the moment you reward someone for speaking Spanish in the States you are pandering to the “illegals” and eroding the fabric of America? Do the benefits of flexing your linguistic muscles disappear once you’re Stateside?
There will always be people who become enraged if the cashier at McDonald’s has a thick accent or immediately assumes that if your English is flawed or you speak Spanish to your partner you are an illegal alien. And people will continue to battle against bilingual education even as their little American child holds hands with another child from Mexico, singing and chattering in English and in Spanish.
But for those who are intrigued about learning Spanish, even as you worry that the face of America is changing into something you don’t recognize, take some small steps toward learning about the varied facets of Latino culture and see if it still scares you. Download some Marco Antonio Solis. Learn to make chimichurri. Watch the actors on a telenovela and see if you can follow the story through their gestures.
Next time you’re in line behind a Spanish-speaking family in Walmart, maybe you won’t think to yourself: “Why don’t they just go back to their country if they don’t speak English?”