American Culture

Why I've pressed my daughter to learn Spanish

by JS O’Brien

Barack Obama is currently ducking the incoming from the something-for-nothing right on his assertion that Americans should learn Spanish.  To be sure, he also says that immigrants to the US should learn English, as if all those immigrants are sitting at home thinking, “Gee, why should I learn English just so I can stop cleaning hotel rooms for $2 an hour and start earning a six-figure sales income?”

Obama’s assertion that learning a foreign language is a “powerful tool” in the job market is only partly right.  It’s a useful skill, certainly, for some jobs, but not necessary for most.  Anyone who travels much outside this country is already aware that English is spoken almost everywhere there is a decent educational system.  Heck, my clumsy attempts to learn a bit of the local languages when traveling have often been met by hurt feelings.  It would seem that many Europeans, at least, feel that Americans trying to speak their language is an indication that we think they’re poorly educated.

The Brits are the worst about this.

Nevertheless, most reputable US colleges require some high-school-level foreign language skills for admission, and a few (mostly the most selective ones) still have foreign language requirements for a degree.  Kids who want to attend those colleges need to take a foreign language in high school, and I have pushed my daughter towards Spanish (at least, so far in middle school).

She can change her language once she reaches high school, of course.  Our local high school offers German, French, Spanish, Latin, and Japanese.  I think Japanese would be quite useful, and even Latin can be very rewarding, but Spanish is the language most likely to serve her well.

The fact is, the US shares a border with only one country that doesn’t speak English (and we’ll leave the more surly Quebecers out of this):  Mexico.  They speak Spanish in Mexico.  In fact, countries that don’t speak English in the Western Hemisphere tend to speak Spanish or, in a few cases, Portuguese.  Most of the immigrants to this country, legally or illegally here, speak Spanish.  If you actually want to have the greatest chance of communicating well with non-English-speakers right here in the good ‘ol USofA, Spanish is your best bet.  This is what I tell my daughter, to little avail.

My daughter finds Spanish too easy and wants to learn something more exotic.  Her brother is currently attempting to become fluent in Urdu, Dari, Farsi, Pashto, Arabic, and Swahili.  I threaten her with those.  She threatens me with unwed pregnancy.

Does anyone know a good Chinese tutor?

10 replies »

  1. “West Virginian Southern”? Is that written in pictograms or something? >8P

    I once stopped at a Hardees in West Virginia. On the door was a sign that read “If you cannot read, picture menus are available upon request”. I was going to bring it up with the staff inside, but I was genuinely afraid they weren’t going to see the absurdity of the post.

    While learning a foreign language is handy for speaking to others in their native tongue, my favorite aspect is that it forces you to think a bit differently. You don’t tend to notice the constraints that English puts on the way you think until you see it from the outside.

    Given the low status that Americans enjoy in other countries, perhaps we’d be better off learning how to properly use profanity in 30 different languages, rather than attempting to become fluent in one.

  2. You do realize, JS, that your ideas about her linguistic education mean absolutely nothing? It all comes down to the first non-English speaker your daughter shacks up with… there’s her second language.

  3. fikshun:

    You’re a very funny person. And I’ve heard the same about the way knowing a foreign language provides a different framework from which to see the world. Unfortunately, I have no firsthand experience with that because I’m not fluent in any language whatsoever.


    Thanks for that.

  4. I think everyone ought to learn another language – useful or not. Knowing the words and grammar of another culture does great things for your brain. It helps you know your own language better and also awakens you to the idea that other folks don’t see things the same way we do.

  5. I have been studying Spanish and Japanese at It’s pretty cool, you can set up a tutoring lesson with someone via a webcam.

  6. I would have to say that from my experience in attempting to deal with banks overseas, that trying to communicate in English is not the best first choice.

    I called a bank in France three times and got transferred from person to person, all of whom told me me in halting English that they would transfer me to someone who spoke English. On my fourth call, I pulled out my “Est ce-qu’il y a un person qui parle Anglais?” [sic](a little rusty) and the operator whom I had spoken to twice before suddenly spoke fluent English, and I was immediately transferred to a person in the correct department who also was fluent in English.

    I repeated this experience with Spanish and German banks, though I have to admit not with all of them. Sometimes, they want us to try….

  7. Interesting stuff, Fraud guy. Maybe the phone is different, and France (and French-speaking Belgium) are certainly different ;-). My own story from Brussels is of being in a high-level meeting for a multi-national company with representatives from the US, Belgium, France, Germany, Norway, Thailand, and about 10 other countries/languages. We’re moving along in English when one of the Belgian guys raises his hand and says, “I don’t understand why, when we’re meeting here in Brussels where we speak French, this meeting isn’t being held in French?”

    I was stunned. The guy running the meeting, a dour, no-nonsense Norwegian, replied, “Maybe it’s because the official management language of the company is English, everyone in the room speaks English, but I and pretty much everyone else in the room DON’T speak French!!!”

    Interestingly, I’ve heard other Europeans complain that the French won’t speak English to them. A Swede I know complained about this some months ago, saying “What educated person in the world today doesn’t speak English?”

    Thanks for the input.