Too Much Spanish?

It’s quite obvious that we have a lot of immigrants from Mexico and South America, and in the capitalist way, many businesses have sprung up to service them: we have locally-produced Spanish radio, television, and newspapers; many businesses advertise that their staff speaks Spanish; and most non-perishable grocery items are labelled in both English and Spanish. But at some point, I have to wonder if we’re not servicing the Spanish-speaking community too much.

I’ve always spoken the language of the countries in which I lived, and I can say with some confidence that if you plunked Peter and me down in, say, China, or Finland, for an extended stay, we’d be mighty motivated to learn the local lingo. On the other hand, I do know that picking up a new language is hard for some people, especially as they get older, and harder still if they have hearing problems. This is why I have the great luck of being able to use my Russian to help out elderly ex Soviet bloc immigrants, and how a Spanish-speaking nanny expanded my Spanish vocabulary because she wanted to talk to someone, and the only way she could do that was to teach me Spanish.

But if you don’t speak the local language, it’s generally a given that you’re going to have a limited experience because of that. That’s what inspires you to struggle to figure out what people are saying, and stumble along in imitation. But these days, it sometimes seems Spanish is the preferred language, not English. A few years ago, I went to get a portrait of Neil done at the Sears photo studio, and the only forms they had were in Spanish. Just recently, my friend Chris’ husband Tian Bo wanted to register to vote, and at two places they went, voter registration forms were only available in Spanish. The latter seems especially odd. Tian Bo is a naturalized citizen, so he and Chris know that a civics test in English is a requirement for citizenship, so why can you then register to vote in a foreign language? And last, when Peter went to see I Am Legend last week, he was surprised to hear the cinema announce that the 7:45 and 10:45 pm shows would have Spanish subtitles.

In one way, it’s good, since if I put my mind to really learning Spanish (not just nanny conversation), I’m sure it could come easy, since there’s a lot of ready reinforcements to it. But at some point, it would be nice if my neighbors cared to learn English, instead of expecting me to learn a language that is, for all rights and purposes, foreign.

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