By Cesar Fernando Zapata
Published by The News-Press
On July 31, 2006
FORT MYERS, Florida - I have always loved learning languages. For me, it’s an intellectual challenge. The intellectual challenge, par excellence.
As a Mexican immigrant, I speak two languages: Perfect Spanish -or at least, that’s what I like to believe, although some would like to have a say on this -and English.
(Okay, I know my English may sound sometimes a little bit like Arabic, but once you get to know me, you may even understand my pronunciation.)
I have also started to learn French. Sadly, my efforts so far have yet to get passed from Comment allez-vous?, Merci and Freedom Fries.
I even once tried my luck -rather timidly- with Japanese. (Don’t ask me if I can remember any of it, but I love sushi!)
Languages are fun to me. With the added bonus that they might come in handy when you least expect.
This always comes to my mind whenever the issue of English-only policies in the United States is discussed.
Every day, the tone of the arguments over the “invasion” of Spanish increases. And with every new bilingual sign at Home Depot, or with every recorded message asking to dial 2 Para Español, Americans feel that their national language is on the verge of extinction.
Oddly enough, the same fears can be found south of the border: Mexican politicians and intellectuals cry out loud everyday to defend Spanish from the “invasion” of English language.
Extremism is the same everywhere.
Now, don’t get me wrong: As an immigrant, I recognize English as the de facto (no pun intended) national language of the U.S. Everybody does so around the world.
It seems that the only people who are worried about the well being of the English language are… English speakers.
Languages do disappear every day. At least half of the world’s 6,000-plus languages spoken today will be lost in several years, according to a report by the National Science Foundation.
But this is not the case with English language. English is alive and well in the U.S.
British linguist Steven Roger Fischer predicts that 300 years from now, only three languages will be truly international on a global scale: Mandarin Chinese, English and Spanish. The rest of today’s “main” languages (like German, French or Japanese) will not disappear completely, but their influence will be reduced to a regional level.
Not English not Spanish will disappear. Both languages have long histories, strong literature, art and enough population to remain important.
And unlike Chinese’s overwhelming complexity, English and Spanish are far easier to learn, which contributes to their growth.
In fact, the Chinese learn English and Spanish in numbers, rather than wait for us to learn their language.
Around the world, young people in many countries perceive English and Spanish as “cool” to learn (thanks to Hollywood movies and Mexican telenovelas). This ensures their permanency.
So, what’s with that fear about Spanish sweeping English away? That will never happen.
Today, with so many options in communications languages reach their just dimension: They are not cultural weapons anymore. Rather, they become, simply put, knowledge.
And as my grandmother used to say, knowledge never takes up any space.
It’s like Physics or learning to play the piano. Why these skills should be exclusive only to scientists or musicians to learn?
Spanish shouldn’t be a monopoly of us, Hispanics. Why are we the only ones who get the privilege to become bilingual?
Why don’t Anglos, or Asians, or African-American children get to speak Spanish, too, or any other language?
Spanish is not an invader. It was the first European language spoken in the United States, well before English arrived to its shores.
In Fort Myers it was the language spoken by its first settler, Cuban Manuel Gonzalez. Even the name Florida is Spanish for “Flowered”.
Now, this does mean immigrants “don’t want to learn English”, as many Americans claim.
Of course, there are some Latinos who believe English is not worth the effort, and brag about their total incompetence in learning it. Their loss.
But the vast majority of us, Hispanics, know better. And we invest time, effort and money to learn at least the basics of English to get by.
But it takes time. Some Americans ignore this, and want perfect communication, and they want it now.
Languages are hard to learn. Especially for someone working two shifts to put food on the table.
Even Spanish –perceived as one of the “easiest” languages- has enough nuances in tenses and verbs, which demand at least three years of constant study to achieve “acceptable” fluency.
The majority of Americans living in Mexico haven’t reached enough fluency in Spanish to be considered “bilingual”. And they will never do.
Why should it be easier for Hispanics to learn English?
Moreover, Latinos face an uphill battle with English, due to its highly irregular spelling system, and countless “exceptions” in pronunciation, compared to the more regular Spanish grammar.
Mario Pei, the renowned Italian linguist calculated that Spanish had around 350,000 terms in its total vocabulary, while English had 500,000 commonly used terms… plus 500,000 more words for certain specific fields.
Despite this, it’s way easier to find a Mexican who speaks English -on different levels of fluency- than finding an Anglo who speaks Spanish… or any other language, for that matter.
Now, probably you have something against learning Spanish. Maybe you don’t like Hispanics. That’s fine. But you have more than 5,000 other languages to choose from, not only Spanish.
Now, if you are not a hobbyist, and always want to get something back for your efforts, you can see it as an economic opportunity. There is a whole world outside the United States you could do business with.
After all, languages are tools to use. It’s their original and reason of existence.
Spanish, like any other language, is part of the cultural heritage of the Human race. It’s a skill, which can be studied, and learned by anyone. Everybody can make it part of his or her knowledge and culture. Everybody can make it his or hers.
The same way I was once able to learn English and make it as mine as Spanish.