Fabiola Santiago

Americans need to rethink their foreign language phobia


English is under no threat in the United States — or in the world, where it is the preferred language of business. But you’d think a menacing language bogeyman looms over us by the reaction that bringing up another language inspires in this country.

Never mind the hotheaded candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, which should arouse plenty of concern. If you really want to rattle America’s nerves, bring up the value of speaking or learning another language — and defend it, as I’ve done on several occasions recently.

Clears the room — and even your rainbow coalition of professed fans are no longer there for you.

I’m reminded by a Cuban-American reader that if you speak too much Spanish — as he thinks Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas did at a recent commencement in California — you run the risk of making people feel excluded and “ripe for the picking by Trump.”

In other words, calladitos nos vemos más bonitos, as yesterday’s abuelas might have reminded us. We’re prettier when we’re quieter. In grown-up terms, we’re more palatable to the mainstream when we’re low-key.

I’m a veteran of Miami-Dade’s anti-bilingualism wars of the 1980s, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the division, misunderstanding and plain prejudice that defending Spanish use produces in this country. But I am surprised that so many immigrants and children of immigrants also are quick to shun the use of another language these days.

The delusion that foreign languages are a threat to our American-ness is leading us in the wrong direction.

In Florida, the Republican-dominated state Legislature tried to erode foreign language instruction by allowing high school students to replace the foreign-language college prerequisite with computer coding classes. I’m not sure if good sense or election-year politics prevailed, but the measure didn’t succeed.

Even in Miami-Dade, which sells itself as the Gateway to the Americas, bilingual education much too often takes a backseat, and it’s a struggle to raise bilingual children who can compete in a global economy.

But the way we’re treating Muslims takes the cake — as if real terrorists announced themselves. How many times do we have to read about a person being taken off a flight — or not being allowed to board at all — for speaking Arabic on the phone or to a travel mate?

The only thing more hated than Spanish is Arabic — or anything that sounds Middle Eastern. So far this year, there have been at least six cases of Muslims removed from flights in the United States for speaking Arabic.

This only reveals weakness: Americans are caving into fear — and Nativism has been adopted as protective shield.

It’s sad to read the letters of Americans who feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment — and superiority — from the act of successfully hiding who they were to be accepted in this country.

Mr. P, who came to the United States at age 12, writes me that all he wanted in 1947 was to “speak English like the Americans” so that he could be assimilated into the American mainstream and “no one could tell I was not born in the U.S.” In two years, he had succeeded at erasing who he was — and of this, he’s very proud.

“I have not wished for anyone to speak to me in my native language, nor did I care to wrap myself with the flag of the country of my birth. . . . I cannot condone new immigrants [and their descendants] who insist to speak their native language, demand education in their language and protest while wrapped in the flag of another country,” he writes.

A quick search reveals much about Mr. P. He’s Republican and has lived in the politically active community of The Villages in Central Florida, and his relatives don’t quite feel the same way as he does. They’ve been all over Ancestry.com tracing their roots to the country Mr. P dares not even mention in his letter to me — Austria.

Indeed, there’s more to language than words not understood.

Fear stems from ignorance, including of oneself.

There’s no need to erase a part of you to become a good citizen of this country. American expats living abroad don’t reject who they are; they add on. To dull the memory of what was or who we were is a survival strategy, perhaps necessary at some junctures after leaving one’s homeland, but it’s not proof of alliance. That requires more than the act of forgetting.

Out of respect, I answered Mr. P simply: “Good for you, that’s what America is all about — choice.”

But what I really wanted to say was this: I’m sorry for all you lost along the way.

And I’m fearful for what all of us Americans are losing now.