News Article Details

Cepeda: Drop the demand to 'speak English'

Austin American-Statesman - 7/12/2019

CHICAGO - The story I tell every person who looks at me with pity when I admit that my sons don't speak Spanish is straightforward: My first-born had a worrisome speech delay. Doctors, believing he might literally be tongue-tied, considered cutting my silent toddler's frenulum.

We passed on surgery but did take the doctors' advice to stick to one language in our home so as to not delay his development any further. Dad doesn't speak Spanish, so we ended up in a monolingual household.

When they were young teens, my sons had great English language skills. Yet despite their upbringing in a Hispanic household, they really wanted nothing to do with being Latino. And no amount of after-school classes or attempts at home immersion succeeded in getting them to be able to express themselves in Spanish.

I still hold out hope they'll find Spanish-dominant partners who will romance them into learning their mother's native language. But even that'll be a tough row to hoe - by and large, Latinos are super-judgmental about fellow Hispanics' Spanish skills and very hard on those who don't speak it at all.

Just ask presidential candidate Julián Castro, who, after a strong debate performance last month had to defend his lack of Spanish fluency after several candidates had spoken during the forum en español.

"In my grandparents' time, in my mom's time, Spanish was looked down upon. You were punished in school if you spoke Spanish. You were not allowed to speak it," he told NBC News'Kasie Hunt.

This is very much still going on today.

Research has made clear the link between knowing more than one language and higher lifetime earnings, and with increased cognition and better health.

And yet ... 2018 was the year of white people going viral on social media for telling people of color to "Speak English" while out in public parks, at restaurants, grocery stores, etc.

Children haven't been spared this indignity.

Dual language instruction is an exception, not the norm. English as a Second Language services in public schools are almost exclusively focused on English-language acquisition, even if that means ignoring other language skills a student may possess. Many teachers still snap at students who have the gift of bilingualism to "speak English" in their classrooms, which means speak only in English.

I'm privileged to be fluently bilingual but it was still painful to watch Castro sustain criticism for his language abilities - not least because he has been especially criticized by fellow Latinx people.

And the hurt has rippled out to others who share his experience.

Here's how author Julissa Arce recently described her childhood on the Latino Rebels website: "I grew up in San Antonio in the mid-'90s, and as a seventh grader, I was ridiculed for not speaking English. A classmate yelled out in class, 'Why is she [Julissa] in the honors math class? She is a Mexican, she doesn't even speak English.' We are oppressed on every side. I am now bilingual, but when I visit my family in Mexico and search my mind for a Spanish word for a little too long, a tía is sure to say, 'Ay no, ya se le olvidó de dónde viene' ('oh no, she forgot where she comes from')."

My theory of humanity posits that everyone, no matter how vulnerable or underprivileged, will find another to belittle.

But instead of getting angry at my fellow Latinx people for policing each other's language skills, I have to ask all of my monolingual readers for a favor:

Can you please vow to never demand that someone "Speak English" around you if they aren't actually talking directly to you?

Trust me, you'd be making this country a safer, happier place for millions of people just trying to mind their own business.

Cepeda's column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.


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