Monolingualism is for dumb Gringos
At a local gas station the customer at the counter spoke to the clerk in Spanish so the clerk replied in Spanish. A man in line commented to no one in particular that Americans should speak English and there should not be any other languages ever spoken in the United States. Most of us shrugged.
A man behind him in line asked loud enough for all of us to hear, “Do you know what it is called when someone speaks three languages? Trilingual. When someone speaks two languages? Bilingual. Do you know what we call someone around here who only knows one language?” The man squirmed and indicated no. “We call that person a dumb Gringo.”
The man got red in the face while the rest of us laughed.
I was thinking of that exchange the other day. Actually, when a person only speaks one language that person is monolingual. The United States is the only major country in the world that politically pushes monolingualism, and I believe the gap in academic achievement between students in other countries and those in the United States can be traced right to this issue.
Objections to speaking other languages
There seem to be four main objections to people speaking anything but English when on American soil: First, there is an issue of loyalty that started in World War I when German-Americans were encouraged to stop speaking German and only speak English as a show of loyalty to our country rather than the Kaiser.
So we have those among us that feel controlling the language of newcomers is important. They reason that America is full of foreign agents and saboteurs because someone in a line asks, “¿Qué horas son?”
Second, there are people who only want children in school to learn English because they think that learning another language takes away from the children’s total education. Honest, I have had people tell me that the human brain has only so many cells and if the cells in the brain are used for another language, well, then there just will not be enough brain cells for the stuff that really matters. When pressed for a number they declined, saying they do not want to use up any more of their precious thought cells.
These same people are put off because they have not taken the time and energy to learn Spanish in this area of so many Spanish speakers, hence they often do not know what people are saying around them. If they want to know what is being said, it just takes a couple of months of study and they will understand.
Of course when you do study Spanish you realize that there is the problem of people not speaking Spanish very well, but I will save those thoughts for a better time. One set of thoughts at a time.
Third, there is the opposition of dual language for legal documents in New Mexico because of the expense, yet most opposing the use of Spanish in documents are newcomers to the state, trying to import their prejudices from other areas of the United States, which brings me to what I think is really at work.
Lastly, there are racially based people who focus on ethnicity. They think that one race (always their own) is ever so much better than others, hence their primary language should be the only language used. Under the guise of loyalty or academics or saving money, these people hammer the English Only In America slogans, but I am not fooled by their thinly veiled racism.
Are we smart enough?
Academically speaking, it makes little sense to try to kill the use of Spanish in students in elementary school only to later require a “foreign” language in high school. Personally, I use more than one language and I am not any more smart or stupid for it. Maybe we should look at countries where several languages are at work and see how they are academically. I already know the answer, and you can guess it if you want.
More so, we have a rich second-language tradition in our area that could actually make us better than the Monolingual rest of the nation. Are we smart enough to embrace that tradition?
Swickard is a weekly columnist for this site. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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