“Speak American”. What about speaking something else too?

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ARRIBAándale. America’s conversation about the country’s second-biggest language is as drearily predictable as the catch-phrase of Speedy Gonzalez, a cartoon mouse, is silly. The country has not quite figured how to think about the fact that it is home to millions of people who speak Spanish.

Three recent stories encapsulate the tone-deaf nature of the dialogue happening between English and Spanish in America. First is that of Vanessa Ruiz, a newscaster in Arizona. Apparently many Anglophones in her audience are annoyed by her overly Spanish pronunciation of Spanish names and place-names during her English broadcast. (One tweeted at her “You are a newscaster. Not a mariachi. Speak English.”) Ms Ruiz replied in a cheerful on-air commentary: she was “lucky” to grow up bilingual, and that she had faith that her viewers would get used to hearing the words in question pronounced “the way they are meant to be pronounced”.

This is slightly confused; there is not a single way that anything is “meant” to be pronounced: tomato, tomahto, “park the car in Harvard Yard” and “pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd.” Mexico is pronounced meks-ick-o in English, and meh-hee-ko in Mexico. What about a name like “Rodríguez”: the rhotic burr of an American “r” twice, or a trilled “r” to start the name and a quick tap for the second r, as in Spanish?

There is not a simple answer. One may not be authentically Spanish, but a Rodriguez in Cleveland may not care, or may even prefer the red-white-and-blue pronunciation.  Ms Ruiz should not be criticised for her pronunciation; neither should she assume that Americans who do otherwise are doing anything wrong. If America can handle both Harvard Yard andHahvahd Yahd, it can manage this.

But Spanish is not just another accent; it is a language. People’s confusion quickly leads to irritation when they cannot understand the speech of those around them, and many monolingual English-speakers don’t like the growth of Spanish in America. This became more than obvious when the second Spanish controversy broke recently. Jeb Bush, a contender for the Republican nomination for the presidency, is married to a Mexican-American, and occasionally addresses an impressively fluent string of Spanish to his supporters. This was too much for Donald Trump, the current Republican frontrunner, who said said that Mr Bush “should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States”. Joining the chorus was Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008, who said that while it was great that Mr Bush is bilingual, Latinos in America should “speak American”.

Never mind that she corrected this to “speak English” a sentence later. After disappearing from the national stage for a time, Ms Palin’s reputation for talking entertaining nonsense was quickly revived. She is, however, on a slightly better historical footing than her critics think: the state of Illinois declared its official language to be “American” in 1923, before quietly revoking the law in 1969, and one congressman introduced a failed bill to make “American” the national language in the 1920s as well. American English is quite obviously a dialect of English, not a separate language from that spoken in England, but in quite a lot of places, two mutually intelligible varieties of speech get different names for political reasons: Serbian and Croatian, Hindi and Urdu, and so forth.

Ms Palin did her best to be generous, calling America’s Hispanic population “large and wonderful” and praising Mr Bush’s connection to Hispanics through his wife and her language. But she went on to say “I think, you know, when you’re here, let’s speak American.” The territoriality of it all seems to be at issue: foreign languages are great, so long as they’re only spoken abroad.

But the territory of the United States has never been anything resembling monolingual. It was founded on the territory of speakers of the many native American languages. It bought and conquered big territories from France, Spain and Mexico. It has received wave after wave of immigrants, and contrary to popular belief, yesterday’s waves were no faster than today’s to learn English (and in many cases, quite a lot slower). Contrary to another popular belief, Spanish is not the first language with large groups of speakers living in big sections of the country, with media and local life in their language; German-speakers made up a huge and mostly unassimilated bloc a century ago, dominating cities across the midwest like Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

This history is easily forgotten because America is very good at turning immigrants into monoglot English-speakers. Yes, American English is the crucial language to know in the United States. But Ms Ruiz in Arizona and Mr Bush on the campaign trail merely highlight an obvious corollary: there is nothing wrong at all—in fact, there is a lot to celebrate—in speaking a second language alongside English, whether you are an Arizonan named Ruiz or the Anglo-Saxon son and brother of former presidents named Bush.  Barack Obama can chat a bit in Indonesian,  Herbert Hoover was fluent in Mandarin, and Martin van Buren’s first language was Dutch. America is never going to elect someone who doesn’t speak “American”, but it should be proud, not nervous, when it picks someone who speaks more than a single language.

 

 

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