"When you speak Spanish, people tell you ‘Wow, that’s so good. Congratulations.’ When I speak Spanish, I’m told ‘Speak English.’ The only difference is the color of my skin,” a friend of mine told me last week.

I was sitting in Denny’s with my friend, who came to Texas from Mexico many years ago with his family. We were catching up over a lunch of burgers and fries, talking about our families and, sadly, the recent shooting in El Paso that reflected anti-immigrant sentiments. We also were speaking Spanish.

Spanish is a beautiful language that spans countries and connects cultures. I love speaking it. I still remember the first time I could actually understand the conversations of the people around me on a street in Spain. Through speaking another language, it was like a whole other world had suddenly opened to me. And with 52.6 million people here in the United States who speak Spanish, I think it only makes sense for Americans to learn it.

I’m often encouraged for my efforts to learn Spanish, whether for my career or just as a personal goal. When I practice with people in restaurants, in the street, at social gatherings, I’m often received with warmth and encouragement. People are happy to hear me learning and patiently look past my stumbling errors while I try to tell a story or share a joke.

Sadly, my friend doesn’t have the same experience. No matter that he speaks English perfectly well and has been here for many years. He can navigate a complex conversation with perfect ease. He is bilingual.

Why is it that when I speak Spanish in public, I’m encouraged, but when he speaks Spanish in public, he gets dirty looks and nasty comments?

If it’s something as simple as the difference between the color of our skin, that is a reflection of a deeper problem we somehow continue to run into in the year of our Lord 2019. I’m your standard Caucasian female; people don’t bat an eyelash if I choose to break out some chistes at the dinner table or swap a quick “¿Qué tal?” with the family jogging next to me in the park. My friend deserves to be treated with the same respect I am treated with.

I understand the frustration of people who can’t communicate with non-native English speakers. Just as I learned Spanish when I went to Spain, it should be an expectation to learn English if you live in America. No matter where you are, you need to know the dominant language to navigate daily life.

However, what is completely uncalled for is rude commentary or mocking someone for learning — or worse, telling them to “go back where they came from” just because they want to tell a story or share a joke in their native language. If they can speak English fluently and contribute to society, why be hateful and stick your nose into someone else’s conversation?

While those who want to build a new life for themselves in the States should learn English to navigate their new life, we, in turn, should extend grace and kindness to those trying to learn.

Macon Atkinson is a staff writer for The Paris News. She can be reached at 903-785-6963 or macon.atkinson@theparisnews.com.

(1) comment



Muy bueno! Great commentary and I agree with both points: people living or visiting other countries should learn and use the language; and we should extend kindness and help those trying to learn English. My wife and I lived in Europe 6 years (Italy, Germany, Denmark) and we worked at learning the language, especially in Italy on our first tour. We lived in a smaller town where there weren’t many Americans. As we worked to speak the language the locals were understanding and helpful. It was interesting that in the 1+ year we lived there we were never “mistaken” for being American when in public. I was once told the reason was because Americans only speak American/English. While there are a few Americans who speak multiple languages it is not the norm. Whereas it seems that the majority of Europeans, and people from Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia speak multiple languages. I traveled considerably internationally on business and always learned a few phrases in the local language. It always seemed to be beneficial for starting a business meeting (in English) as well at hotels and restaurants. Speaking another language broadens ones perspective and also improves understanding and respect for other cultures.

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