The Gift of Languages

I’ve always admired people who speak multiple languages, and can shift back and forth among them with relative ease. My son-in-law is bi-lingual in English and German. I speak English and reasonably fluent Spanish, and can still read Russian — which I studied in high school and college — although I can no longer carry on a conversation. Many Europeans, due to the closeness of national borders and the ease of going from one EU country to another, shift easily among 3-5 languages.

I’m always a bit taken aback when U.S. tourists in Panama get hung up in restaurants and such, trying to communicate in English with servers or vendors whose primary language is Spanish. Last November, I helped one woman at a nearby table sort out her breakfast bill. She was with a tour group who’d promised that she needed no Spanish to participate in the trip, and here she was with no tour employees nearby and stuck over resolving her bill. After I’d helped her, she said in some frustration and evident annoyance “Why don’t these people speak English?” Um, because Panama is a Spanish-speaking country and you are their guest, not the other way around?

I consider speaking multiple languages a clear asset — a belief not share by many white Republicans and/or older white Americans, as it turns out.

“A new survey finds white Republicans are far more likely to be put off by foreign language speakers than their Democratic counterparts.

According to Pew Research Center, 47 percent of such Republicans say it would bother them “some” or “a lot” to “hear people speak a language other than English in a public place.” Eighteen percent of white Democrats said they would be similarly bothered.

Aside from politics, age and education are the major predictors of linguistic discomfort. Eighteen percent of whites younger than 30 said they would be bothered by a foreign language being spoken, compared with 43 percent in the 50-to-64 age group, and 45 percent among those 65 and older.”

My late mother, a lifelong Democrat, was not a fan of people speaking other languages, especially Spanish. She went to Florida for several weeks in the winter, and always expressed great annoyance at the Miami airport when she’d go to pick someone up and announcements were made in English and Spanish. I responded by saying how helpful it was for me in overseas airports when signs were translated into multiple languages, including English. She was unmoved by the argument.

The study of foreign languages has much declined in our country, and maybe part of this is envy over a skill that older white people tend not to have. According to the article, though, the negativity toward people speaking languages other than English is often also accompanied by negative attitudes toward diversity in general. Despite the recent surge in white nationalism, that’s a profoundly limiting position in our global and multi-cultural world.

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