You’re riding the bus and two women in behind you are speaking Spanish to one another. You think:
a.) “Welcome to America. Now speak English.”
b.) They’re talking about me. I know it.
c.) Spanish? I didn’t even notice.
Have these thoughts ever crossed your mind, or even yet, your lips? If they have, you’re not alone. A quick search on Facebook and I found pages entitled “THIS IS AMERICA, SPEAK ENGLISH,” with 22,876 likes, “Don’t Press ONE for English,” with over 10,000 likes, and “We Speak English in America,” with 220 likes. Some of these pages feature hate-speak about Mexicans, illegal immigrants, as well as other ethnic groups who speak languages other than English. And they all assume that just because someone is speaking a language other than English means that they CAN’T. Of the 281 million people 5 years and older who participated in the 2000 U.S. Census, 20% reported that they spoke a language other than English in their home. Does this necessarily mean that they CAN’T speak English?
So why am I writing about this? To give the collective “you” a new perspective:
I can’t speak or read French fluently. It impacts every facet of my daily life, from reading directions on a food package to getting my hair cut. Or really important things, like taking my son to the doctors, asking a pharmacist what’s the recommended dose for an almost three-year old. Or READING THE SCHOOL PACKET that came in the mail. It will literally take me hours to translate the five-page document that arrived, which includes the specific items I need to send with my son on his first day of school. I’ve been translating these documents while dealing with the harsh realization that my little boy, my comrade in the perils and joys of life in Paris, will be leaving his Momma and going to school.
Emotionally, I am a wreck. I am frustrated that what I translate doesn’t quite “translate” into real world French. I’m still unsure if his first day is the 4th or the 6th. My husband and I giggle nervously over a translation that states we need to bring a hobgobblin with him on his first day. (Really Google Translate? A hobgobblin?) But really it’s just yet another reminder that although we try, and try hard, we still do not effectively grasp the language.
Learning a second language is hard. Really hard. It doesn’t come easy to adults and not for a lack of trying, it will most likely take the entire time we’re here for me to be able to speak fluently. It causes so much anxiety in me, the mom perfectionist, to think that one day the phone might ring and I won’t understand WHY the school is calling me. Is HJ sick? Did he get hurt? Is there a fundraiser they want me to volunteer for? And because I can’t speak the language does that mean I don’t belong in the country? Or for the right
But what if I could speak fluently? What if FMF (my fabulous American friend) and I were speaking English on the metro because it’s easier than speaking Spanish, or French? Does that mean we’re mocking the French lady in front of us, or that we CHOSE not to speak French?
So to all of the Spanish-speaking American moms trying to learn English and crying over your child’s back to school packet, “Entiendo.”
Side note: fellow English-speaker trapped in a French-speaking world Nikki posted about her views on speaking Spanish in America here.