I recently walked into the small flower shop to order the delivery of a dozen roses for mother’s day; the lady did not speak a word of English. Was she an undocumented alien? Maybe. I have however discovered several cases of American citizens and/or resident aliens who cannot sustain a conversation in English. My own high school students, most of them Hispanic, use only Spanish when talking to each other. When I chided one of them, a 17-year old girl, for using Spanish during class, she angrily responded that she was talking to a friend, not to the teacher. Trying to convince them that they will need a mastery of English to be successful in life is a trying task. They are second generation Americans and have heard Spanish ever since they were born.
Wherever you go on the border with Mexico, from Brownsville, Texas to San Diego, California, Spanish is the dominant language. Most jobs require you to be bilingual to assist customers, whether selling hamburgers at Whataburger or fixing your client’s taxes. When you call the phone company, a government’s office or any of the large businesses, a robotic voice will tell you: “Para Español, presione 1”; press 1 for Spanish. All documents come in the two languages and all instructions on how to assemble the cabinet you just purchased come in French, English and Spanish. So why are so many bent on declaring Shakespeare’s tongue as the official language in the United States?
English-speaking Puritans founded this great country, long before millions of immigrants from a dazzling diversity of cultures arrived to pursue their own dreams. A teacher friend told me that our Congress almost established German as the official language in the early days, a proposal that was narrowly defeated. In the French-Indian wars, the British prevailed as we well know; but what if the French had been the victors? All of us might be using the language of Voltaire nowadays. A Spanish-speaking nation? Oh yes! I forgot that from Florida to California, all that territory belonged to Spain and then Mexico. Their heritage can be observed in the names of cities and states: Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Antonio, Tejas (yes, with a j in Spanish), New-Mexico, Las Cruces, etc..
English is spoken by 80% of the U.S. population, or the equivalent in population: 240 million. Spanish is spoken by 30 million Americans. German, Italian, Greek, Russian, Polish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Tagalog (Philippines) make up the rest, although these languages tend to disappear by the third generation of immigrants. Spanish seems to endure the test of time best. Louisiana clings to its French past (the name comes from Louis the XIV) by making it an official language of the state, but good luck on finding French speaking citizens there.
Even though some nativists insist on declaring English as the official language, the ubiquitous application of Spanish in government’s documents makes it a de facto official second language. One cannot function adequately on the border without a good knowledge of Spanish – though we can see some meanings lost in translation.
With or without the Border Wall of Shame, millions of Mexican and Central America’s immigrants will continue to seek a better opportunity in the U.S., bringing with them their proud cultural and linguistic heritage. Why don’t we start teaching Spanish at the elementary level in the rest of the country, so as to facilitate and improve the understanding and acceptance between ethnic groups?
It is true that one cannot succeed in life without a commanding mastery of the English language, a fact that I try to instill in my high school Hispanic students. But aside from the mere material aspects, using English as the main language is a testimony of respect in recognizing the heroic struggle of the Founding Fathers to establish the first true democracy in the Americas. Its shining example still moves millions of people in the world to seek the American Dream.