To the Lady Who Said, “We Speak English in America”

Tolerance, acceptance, Spanish
A Guest Post by Angie Riascos
October 31, 2018
My husband and nine-year-old daughter browsed the wares at an estate sale not long ago. While they shopped, they spoke to each other about everyday things. Then you, hearing their voices, came up to my husband and scolded him. “We speak English in America,” you said.
I’ve been thinking of that moment, wondering why you felt it was okay to say this to my husband and daughter. 

Tolerance, Acceptance, Spanish Speaking
Angie and her daughter enjoying a Christian music concert.

I have fantasized for days about what I would have said to you had I been there.  At first, my thoughts were guided by anger and disgust. How dare you? But the more I thought about it I realized I was not really angry, but disappointed.

Up to that day, when we ran into you, we had never been subjected to such disrespect on the basis of speaking a different language. For the most part, we have been met with encouragement. Many people wish they could raise bilingual kids or wish they had not lost the Spanish they picked up while in high school or college. I assume most people know, to some degree, about the benefits of raising bilingual kids. If you don’t, I encourage you to search the internet. Perhaps then you will have a better idea of why, by choice, we speak to our children in Spanish every opportunity we have.

Since when did it become a problem–or your problem–if someone chooses to speak Spanish near you? Since when did it become a problem to publicly raise bilingual children with the hope they become comfortable speaking a language other than English while living in the U.S.? If they were speaking German, Russian, French, Japanese or Chinese, would you have also discouraged them from speaking any of those languages? Or was the problem that they were speaking Spanish and you most likely assumed they were illegal, uneducated immigrants you could wound with your words? And what if they were? What threat do two people speaking Spanish to each other pose to you? Whatever were you thinking? You had no right to intrude in their conversation and offer such unwelcome, offensive and uneducated advice.
Tolerance, Acceptance Spanish Speaking, Bilingual
The author, Angie, and her family on vacation.

I was quick to share this experience with close family and friends, mainly because I could not believe this had happened to us. However, it has taken me some time to discern an explanation that makes sense of your actions in my head. I keep coming back to this question: Why would anyone think it is okay to tell another human being in what language they should communicate? The only answer I arrive at is: These types of spoken words must be fueled by feelings of entitlement, fear, and resentment or by ignorance and incorrect assumptions. I can only wonder if you would have felt compelled to say those words if you knew our story or background. But, I shouldn’t have to tell my story to have you see me or my family as human and worthy of your respect. We shouldn’t have to defend our choices and our history to strangers at an estate sale. 

As parents, my husband and I refuse to stop speaking to our children in Spanish. We have experienced, first hand, the amazing things that come with being fluent in two languages. When we travel, work, or are simply out and about, we communicate and relate to others in a way that is only possible when you speak two or more languages. This is one of our greatest gifts to our children and we are not about to hide it from the world. You may want to take a language lesson or two yourself. Maybe then, you’d understand.
Your turn: What do you do when someone is speaking another language near you? Are you bilingual or wish you were? What other reasons can you think of for why a person would approach a stranger with a comment like, “We speak English in America”? 
If you’d like to get to know Angie better, you can read a little more about her here.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

25 thoughts on “To the Lady Who Said, “We Speak English in America””

  1. I’m sorry this happened to you.
    I speak several languages and on the whole have had positive experiences. However there was one guy who came up to us to let us know that he didn’t like German people. I’m not German, but that’s not the point. I don’t know why people get so scared about hearing other languages either.I remember on another occasion speaking German on the telephone during my lunch break and my colleagues were convinced that I was talking about them! As if I didn’t have better things to talk about.
    I work in adult language education and am surrounded by people who speak more than one language. But stories like this sadden me, because they show how much fear and ignorance is out there.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I have also wondered if people are uncomfortable not knowing what a conversation near them is about.

  2. Grrrrrrr. This makes me so angry! What business is it of hers?! Absolutely none. It could be understandable if your husband had gone up to her and spoken to her in Spanish (but also that’s really no biggy either), but it was a private conversation that had nothing to do with her. I’m trying to react rationally and say something profound like “it’s a reflection of her own self-esteem issues and she’s probably not a very happy person to have spoken to someone like that”, BUT all I’m truly thinking right now is “what a cow”.
    Having bilingual children is such an asset and so good for them. My 8yr old is obsessed with other languages and will speak to me in what little French/Spanish she knows. It will be great when she knows more and we can practice it more and more with each other. How could anyone think it a negative that a child speaks more than one language, whatever their heritage? What right does she have to decide what language you should be speaking to your own child? And who gets to decide what language is spoken in America? Surely it’s always been a nation of nations, rich with a history of immigration that would naturally have lots of people speaking different languages? Why would that be perceived negatively? Lastly, I am sorry your husband & daughter experienced this.

    1. I so can relate to the part where you say “I want to react rationally”. I had a variety of good and bad emotions that were not always rational. I decided to wait a while to let the “heat” cool off and allow for some type of learning to surface.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story, Angie. And I’m so impressed by the strength and empathy you showed in trying to understand why someone would say something so ignorant to your family. I am blessed to have grown up bilingual, and I wish all the time that I could speak Chinese even more fluently as I rarely use it in my daily life, except when speaking with my family. It is so wonderful that you speak Spanish with your children! I hope to learn Spanish myself!

    1. Thank you for your support and words of encouragement. I was raised speaking English in a Spanish speaking country and thank my mom for not giving up.

  4. I LOVE this. My parents taught me English and Urdu at the same time growing up and while I still struggle with responding myself in Urdu, I’m working really hard on it. By having another language, I have another connection to a side of the world I wasn’t born in or would have explored in school, and I am so grateful for it. Keep speaking Spanish with your daughter and your family – it opens up a whole new world to them 🙂

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. It reminds me of how special it has been to be able to communicate with people from different origins when traveling to other parts of the world. Keep up the hard work, it will be worth it!

  5. Fantastic post Angie (and Angela!)

    I totally agree, you are giving your children such an amazing gift! I really really wish both my parents had been able to learn the languages of their parents…then maybe I would have grown up trilingual!? There is soooo much research to show bilingual and multilingual kids do better in all subjects…it’s just so sad that you also have to put up with that sort of ignorant comment sometimes. 🙁

    p.s. Hopefully these things are changing slowly. My husband grew up bilingual, until he went to school, where the teachers ordered his mum to speak only English at home. Then he lost his Catalan/Spanish. 🙁 However nowadays (at least in the UK) teachers recognize how important and helpful it is for kids to grow up with multiple languages.

    1. While I truly value being able to speak English and Spanish, I often times wonder how great it would have been if my great grandparents passed down the German language they spoke when they moved the the U.S. many, many years ago. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me!

      1. I guess the main thing about learning languages (whether from scratch or naturally as a child) is each one gives you a slightly different way of viewing the world/ a new perspective.

        If that “we speak English here” lady had studied a few languages, she might be less rude. 😉

  6. I am speaking as a speech and language therapist here.

    Your mother tongue is vitally important to your children. This is the language you are most emotionally fluent in. You respond intuitively and immediately and instinctively in this language. You automatically have access to the words and phrases that you need to express your parental love and your most intimate wisdom. You know the songs and the rhymes and the sayings that bring warmth and comfort to your interactions. This is a fundamental need as a connected human being.

    To rob a child of this connection with her heritage is a violation of her human rights.

    Through my career I have heard misguided professionals express concerns that children might not learn English if they hear their parents’ mother tongue at home. This is rubbish. Children are able to pick up English quickly (within 6 months) if their mother tongue is well established.

    We advise parents not to mix languages. This is the most harmful thing you can do. Children learn two languages best when they are modelled by different people: one person one language.

    Carry on talking Spanish. It is your child’s birthright. It enriches their emotional and linguistic world.

  7. It’s great that your family is bilingual. Your husband and daughter experienced an inappropriate situation which comes from another’s bias. She was rude and especially so by subjecting your daughter to her baseness. I’m sorry this happened. I think it quite unfortunate that Americans speak only English. For me it is embarrassing to not be able to communicate in another language when I travel abroad. I regret that I didn’t hold on to the Spanish and French I learned in school. (I’ve had first hand experience in France and Mexico at feeling demeaned for even trying to communicate in the local language.) There is a prejudice stemming from fear that causes people to resent and lash out at what they perceive as “non-conforming.” There is a growing sense of fear, uncertainty, and intolerance in this country, and perhaps this woman “lashed out” personally because she feels she has no public voice. But that is no excuse. She doesn’t know your family. She is much like others who are unwilling to get to know another’s story or viewpoint. We criticize what we don’t understand, and choose to remain ignorant. And until humanity can open its collective heart and mind to acknowledging our differences and stop seeking dominance (if that could ever be possible), than we all become targets to others’ prejudices. Thank you for sharing your story, Angie.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! You touched on something that I did not highlight in my post and it is the potential effect the experience could have on my daughter, at a time when she is developing confidence to be different.

  8. I know I’m not breaking any new ground here, but it’s the president who is emboldening bigots to lash out at those of Latino descent. Last week, at my town’s Halloween parade, the local chapter of the Democratic National Committee has a float. A lady sitting about 10 feet away from me yelled to them that they were “Mexico-Lovers”. The person who responded was gracious and agreed, Mexico is a wonderful place, which I’m sure just proved to the woman everything she already believed about Democrats. Regardless, this crap is getting out of hand, and in a rural, republican town like mine, it is probably getting dangerous. I’m sorry your family had to listen to that BS.

    1. One of the thoughts that crossed my mind was “why hasn’t this happened to us before, even though we have been in the U.S. for close to 20 years?”. Maybe a sign of the times we are living.

  9. I am so sorry this happened. It is unfortunate that people are so ignorant! Americans can be so closed-minded! I was still fluent in Cantonese when I first started having children but because my husband wasn’t, it was difficult to to try to speak to the kids. I did sing them songs when they were babies – and now my daughter is studying Chinese and her teacher is surprised by her progress. Good for you for raising your kids bilingual!

    1. @Janet, that is sooo cool! I am fluent in Japanese, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to teach future children that language as it’s not a family thing (I just loved learning it/living there) You and your daughter will have a secret language, or maybe your husband will want to learn more too!

    2. Thank you for sharing your experience. Exposure to a different language at an early age is great if there is a way to provide that to a child. Although my older son does not speak fluently like my daughter, I will continue to expose him in hopes it will stick 😊.

  10. Wonderful article, and I’m so sorry you had this awful experience. When I hear people speak a language I don’t understand, I think it’s cool! There are so many different human languages, and the diversity is beautiful. I wish I hadn’t lost the Spanish and German that I once knew, and I’m trying to keep up with American Sign Language. It’s great that your kids are growing up bilingual!!!

    1. I’m also fascinated hearing people speak in other languages. I often find myself trying to figure out if there are words I can recognize. Thank you for your encouragement!

I love hearing from you! Please share your thoughts.