12
Dec
09

Bilingual Curious

All the members of my family speak Spanish better than I do. Some of them were born in Latin America, which gives them an unfair advantage. Others took to studying the language when they were younger, while I was busy mastering “Ms. Pac-Man.”

Regardless, I am now in solid adulthood and burdened with a foreign-language aptitude that can only be described as muy malo. I could easily let it go, because despite the shrill warnings of xenophobes, English is not going away anytime soon.

After all, English is the lingua franca of American pop culture, international business, and the internet. Nobody has achieved success in America without knowing at least some English. And people from Mexico to India to China are learning that it’s in their best interests to study the language.

So with English firmly ensconced, why should I, or anyone, bother to learn Spanish?

Well, first, there is the practical aspect. According to the U.S Census Bureau, about 12 percent of U.S. residents speak Spanish at home. They range from adults who don’t know any English to little kids who are perfectly bilingual. Within this range are millions of Americans who prefer to communicate in Spanish.

At some point, you will need to talk to someone who will throw a cascade of trilled R’s at you. It will happen. And when it does, gesturing randomly or yelling louder in English will not work. Even if the situation is not critical, your feelings of helplessness will be profound.

A second reason for learning Spanish is pure economics. Among the few booming occupations are jobs where Spanish is considered a plus, if not an outright requirement. Both the blue-collar construction worker and the white-collar marketing manager are learning that it’s smart to know the difference between “Lo siento” and “Claro que se.” In these recessionary times, a little awareness of Spanish can be the difference between landing the gig or spending another day watching soaps.

In addition to these practical matters, there is the fact that we are a multicultural society. We have always been a multicultural society, in truth. It just is no longer possible to wall ourselves off and demand that everyone acquiesce to the majority’s needs. Showing respect for other cultures, and gaining a basic understanding and empathy of others, is becoming a necessary skill – not a luxury for do-gooders.

Finally, exercising your brain and learning something new will never hurt you. So don’t worry.

Of course, for me, there is another, more personal reason. Growing up Latino without a firm grasp of Spanish is culturally confusing. It gets into messy questions of identity and authenticity, and we all love addressing those issues as middle age closes in.

So I’m going to hit the books and internet sites. When I get up to speed again, maybe I’ll take an intermediate class. It will take weeks, perhaps months, before I’m ready to tackle a conversation with a native speaker. When it comes, and I stutter past the initial “Buenos dias,” it will be a sublime breakthrough.

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