Friday, August 7, 2009

Using Your Tongue to Make the Shoe Fit

Whenever I speak to someone in Spanish, I feel for them — and not just because they have to suffer through my halting and grammatically creative attempts at their native tongue. English is a difficult language to learn and speak, and I don't blame them for preferring to speak in a language in which they are more comfortable.

Recently, a man told me how much he despised people who came to this country and didn't "learn the language." He was somewhere near a hundred years old, and he lived only a couple of houses down the street from where he was born. Chances are he didn't leave the country unless it was on Uncle Sam's dime, and I can bet he was sent to a country that had policies in political opposition to his homeland (which doesn't make for warm fuzzy thoughts about "foreigners").

I was not in a position to either change his mind or voice my opinion, so I did neither.

I did not mention to him that I grew up in a bilingual household, where my mom spoke Spanish as often as she spoke English. She and my grandmother spoke both languages in Panama, the country of their birth.

Alas, I was of the lazy generation: we could, as I put it, "eavesdrop like the dickens, but couldn't spit out a sentence to save our lives." I didn't have to speak Spanish while Mom or Mimi were around — and with their lovely Castilian Spanish and perfect English, and the ease with which they slid between the languages, who would?

As I grew older and more observant, I noticed how English-only speakers showed prejudice toward my grandmother. I watched how people who heard her speaking Spanish would lower the estimation of her IQ. They would speak unkindly in front of her in English then be shocked and embarrassed when she easily switched to English to converse with them. Even when she spoke only English in their presence, some people supposed much about her because she spoke with an accent.

What they supposed was wrong. She and many of her 12 siblings left their marks on their country — including one brother who engineered skyscrapers that still stand today. When my family visited Panama when I was a child, the president of the country gave us a private tour of the presidential palace — and greeted my grandmother as a dear friend and professional equal. And yet cashiers at Pic 'n Save would look at her as if she was just a "dumb wetback." Even if she could not count these achievements to her credit, she certainly did not deserve the derision of these people. No one does.

When I visited Panama, the English-speaking side of the family was greeted with kindness by people who knew we didn't speak the language. My father was never underestimated, nor was he ignored, dismissed or snubbed. People showed patience as they ascertained what he needed or was trying to say to them. Despite the language barrier, he was always shown respect.

I wish I could say the same about my North American English-only counterparts toward non-native speakers.

In the United States, we are fortunate. We live in a big country in which most people speak the same language. A person can drive from Modesto, Calif. to Sioux City, Iowa and still communicate in the same language. In Europe, or even Canada, that wouldn't be the case: you'd hit different provinces or entire countries and chances are that you'd need to be conversant in another language. You'd need to know the words for gasoline, bathroom, map, gum, right, left.

For fun, write down 10 words you would need while traveling. (No, you can't use any of the same ones I did.) I'll bet you don't know how to speak them in French, the language of the Olympics and the diplomatic language until about a century ago. It's likely you don't know them in German, considered by the international community as the language of mathematics. And odds are you couldn't begin to pick them out in Chinese, a country whose inhabitants outnumber the U.S. population by 3 to 1.

Before casting aspersions on those who don't speak your language (something all of us have done from time to time), think about how hard it is to communicate in your own language — then be patient with the next person who struggles to be understood. Next time, it could be you, and wouldn't it be nice to have that courtesy extended in return.

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