After delivering a lecture celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month at a central New Jersey community college recently, I opened the floor to questions. One member of the audience, an older student who described himself as the son of Italian immigrants, asked for my thoughts on many a company’s efforts to offer services in Spanish. He was referring to the ubiquitous practice that offers callers the option to access information in their preferred language. You know, the choice to press one for English or dos para español. The student’s annoyance was palpable.
I attempted to answer his questions but he wasn’t really trying to hear my answer and kept interrupting me. This student was eager to share his opinion, not hear mine. His point: his European parents were forced to learn English and were not given any special treatment. His other point: businesses back then did not learn to speak Italian or any other language, instead, immigrants learned to speak the language of America – English! His last point: past immigrants, i.e. not Hispanics, assimilated, unlike Latinos who want to stay isolated with all this Spanish speaking stuff. And lastly, his main point: this is America speak English!
His arguments were as old as dirt, used by xenophobes to attack immigrants and pass policies that are cruel and inhumane that seek to hurt, in particular, Latino immigrants. Bilingualism is nothing new in America and has always been a part of our nation’s fabric. Perhaps not known to modern day masses (and to this student) is that bilingual education has been around since the 1800s, when schools taught students in their native French, German, Italian, and Polish among other European languages. Also, many municipal codes were written in languages other than English: in Detroit they were in French and in Union City, New Jersey in German, for instance. But, I digress.
I offered this eager student my three thoughts on the recent language options offered by government and businesses:
• It’s smart to offer customers the choice to conduct business in whatever language clients prefer.
• We’re living in a globalized world and speaking more than one language is not just great for business but great for our country, especially if our nation is going to compete in the global economy effectively.
• It’s personally enriching to speak more than one language as it opens up an entirely new delicious world of connection and pleasure– from books, to film, to music and dance, food and culture.
Because of the student’s demeanor – he seemed more interested in attacking than listening – many in the audience began to feel discomfort, some even took offense, so the conversation shifted to other topics. I was sorry that I did not get to fully engage him and the audience in what I think is an even more provocative question, yet one that Latinos are fraught to ask ourselves: is being able to press numero dos para español muy bueno for Latinos?
The language option is a double edge sword and one that I believe is dangerous and hurts more than helps Latinos. Making it easy to navigate in Spanish may be great for business, but it’s collectively detrimental to Latinos, especially those who have not fully assimilated or speak the language.
Let me explain:
Success in America, whether you like it or not, agree or disagree, is dependent on speaking English. And speaking it well. I am an immigrant who did not speak English when I arrived here more than three decades ago. I love that I can fully write, speak and dream in Español. In my career, I have worked in Spanish language media offering news and vital information to recently arrived Latin Americans in their native tongue, something that I am deeply proud of. But my success in America has been because I learned to read, write and speak English. My success happened because I learned the currency of this nation -English – and that important morsel has helped me prosper and reach heights far from the Spanish only community that I grew up in.
Being forced out of a language comfort zone is great for us.
As Brett Harris writes in his book, Do Hard Things: Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations, “complacency is a blight that saps energy, dulls attitudes and causes a brain on the brain. The first symptom is satisfaction with things as they are, the second is rejection of things as they might be. It makes people fear the unknown, mistrust the untied and abhor the new.”
My four siblings and I were forced to learn English because there were no bilingual programs offered in our public school. Was it tough? Yes! Was it frightening? Hell yes! But, we survived and in less than a year all five kids were speaking to other kids in English and translating for our mother. We were pushed outside our comfort language zones and grew. We were the opposite of complacent.
As humans, it’s the law of pushing yourself outside what feels good that beckons growth. Other kids who immigrated the same year as we did — some cousins, others from the same town in the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America — lingered in a Spanish-only world. Today, it’s the only world they find comfort in and can navigate. This scene is played out in hundreds of Spanish-only communities around the nation. My mom lives in one. She’s been in this country for more than three decades and her English is still grade level. One could say that it’s been her choice to stay in her language comfort zone and if she hasn’t learned English well, it’s on her. But, the truth is more complicated and nuanced and she will admit to it.
Mother, and millions of others, have had it “easy” to navigate in her native tongue and that has in many ways, held her back. My manicurist, a beautiful Dominican mother of three who has been living in Washington Heights for eight years since she arrived, does not speak English. She wants to, she tells me and admits that being around so many Latino paisanos has helped her survive in America but not thrive. She says this has hindered her English-speaking journey. Mom and my manicurist go months and even years never having to speak a word in English, all while living in America. While that is simply remarkable, mother and Karina, by their own account, have and are experiencing linguistic isolation. And that is where I think the danger lies for many Latino immigrants.
Living in a Spanish-only world, as comforting as it may be, cheats many, including mom and Karina from an even more superior experience in fully engaging in a larger conversation in America.
These two women admit the comfort zone has been too comfortable. How many Latinos would be brave to admit to that?
As businesses attempt to reach the gigantic Hispanic dollar, this Spanish comfort zone may get more and more ubiquitous. At the end of the day, what these corporations want is the dollar. They are not looking out for Latino progress.
Creating business models where only Spanish is spoken may be good for the bottom line, but it’s not good for the collective Latino community, if we only do business en español.
If Latinos are to fully take advantage of the influence that place this demographic group as the fastest growing group in America — at 50 million plus – I think we need to stop doing business in Spanish and bring it in English. Yup, I said it. Let’s stop the madness and press the English option. Let’s not make it so easy for ourselves or the recently arrived immigrant to stay speaking Spanish only. Far too many of our Latino brothers and sisters live their entire lives linguistically isolated, never fully participating in the other America, the one where influence, power and policy happens, in English, all day long. This Spanish only trend hurts them, and us collectively.