What do you mean you don’t talk Mexican?

“That they might have joy” column by Jacki Wood

My husband was standing in the checkout line this past weekend when he struck up a conversation with the man in front of him.

He quickly learned this guy was from El Salvador and proceeded to speak with him in Spanish.

This caught the attention of a couple standing in the line over, who gave them the look.

You know the one — the if-you’re-going-to-be-living-here-you’d-better-be-speaking-English look.

My husband’s been given that look on more than a few occasions. And I just don’t get it.

First off, though, let me say that I wholeheartedly believe if you’re going to live in this country, you should learn English. We recently met someone who’d lived here for nearly 30 words and still hadn’t learned it. That’s ridiculous.

But I certainly don’t have a problem with people speaking Spanish or any other language to one another. In my husband’s case, he’s a Spanish teacher and likes to practice with native speakers whenever and wherever he can.

“No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive,” Mohandas K. Gandhi, Indian nationalist and spiritual leader

What I don’t get when people act this way is that all of our ancestors (with the exception of the Native Americans) came to this country from other lands. And many of those couldn’t speak English when they first landed on Ellis Island.

They came speaking German, Italian, French, Swedish, Polish, Russian and Greek. And they came for freedom, some of them specifically for freedom of speech.

In “The Truth about Immigrants,” Brian Frazelle, Houston Catholic Worker, wrote:

“There is always a touch of irony when a citizen of the US complains about immigration. Except for those of pure Native American origin, every one of us is of immigrant descent.

“The US gained its territory largely through the dishonest and violent removal of the indigenous population. Yet somehow we maintain the idea that this land is ours alone and that it is not only harmful but immoral for other people to enter it.”

I don’t want this to turn into a discussion on immigration – illegal or otherwise – but I do want to give a little history…

From its earliest beginnings, and even before, the United States has been a multi-lingual nation. In the early 1500s and through the late 20th century, the Spanish language was spoken in the majority of the country, primarily through the efforts of Hispanic explorers. Prior to the American Revolution, Spanish was even spoken right here in Missouri. Spanish-speaking militias were called to St. Louis in 1780 to help defend the town from British forces.

When the US was founded in the late 1700s, it was normal to hear as many as 20 languages spoken in daily life, such as Dutch, French, German and numerous Native American ones.

There are 322 languages spoken in the US today, according to the 2000 Census.

“A different language is a different vision of life,” Federico Fellini, Italian film director

What I really find really humorous about people complaining about other languages is that our English language has absorbed so many words from others. Spanish alone has influenced it greatly with words like canyon, ranch, rodeo, mustang, coyote, stampede, vigilante, and even places like Colorado which means colorful and Los Angeles which means the angels.

From French, there’s mayonnaise, soufflé, theatre, naïve, déjà vu, lingerie, cliché, encore, petite and souvenir. And from German: aspirin, diesel, hamburger, nickel, quartz, zinc, waltz — and of course, bratwurst, sauerkraut and strudel.

And while I’m on this cultural soapbox, there’s something else that really gets me going.

All people who speak Spanish are NOT Mexicans and they don’t “talk Mexican.” If you don’t know exactly where they came from, it’s best to say they are Hispanic and they “speak Spanish.” Because they come to the US from a myriad of countries, including Spain, Guatemala, El Salvador, Venezuela, Chile, Honduras, Peru and the Dominican Republic, just to name a few.

And some are actually Americans because they were born here. Crazy, I know, but true.

So the next time you’re standing in line at the store and overhear someone speaking Spanish or French or German – or whatever other foreign language – keep in mind our nation’s history and the history of our own English language.

German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said: “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

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