The Land of the Free and the Home of Multilingual Intolerance

Mar 19, 2012
1:41 PM

Conversation Sculpture from TorontoI experienced a cultural epiphany a couple of weeks ago that has been bothering me increasingly since. I spend my days working as a project manager for a regional bank in the Midwest; the same type of work I’ve been performing over the past 15+ years on both sides of the Atlantic. Communicating, both personally and professionally in English or Spanish are interchangeable and I love to use both. To be honest, I miss communicating in Spanish in technical environments on a daily basis given that we are fewer in number here in the middle of the US.

So, back to my epiphany. It came to my attention that a colleague I’d just recently begun to collaborate with is hondureña. Once we both realized we were native speakers, we went nuts and maintained our 1 on 1 conversations, in the workplace, entirely in Spanish. Oh, it felt so nice; was so cathartic! This went on for a couple of weeks but then I noticed, one day out of the blue that I would say something to her in Spanish and she would respond to me in English… every time.

At first, I probably didn´t even realize she was doing it but I started to catch on and eventually asked her about it. She indicated to me, with an air of disappointment, that some who sit around her had complained that we conversed in a language other than the common language they understood and her boss instructed her only to use English at work. I was incensed and let our bosses know about it! What business is it of theirs what language we speak to one another in when conversing quietly one on one? We were never loud, rude or exclusionary. We just maintained conversations with one another in Spanish. I’d imagine that these same complainers show episodes of Dora the Explorer to their children so what did it matter if a couple of bilingual coworkers chose to ‘keep our professional Spanish chops sharp’ and practice speaking in our native tongue together? After-all, being multi-lingual is like riding a bike or playing the piano; it requires practice.

Then I started recalling the same situations and environments where I had had similar multi-lingual experiences while living in Spain and working in other countries across Europe over a 10 year period. Do you know what I realized? I was never, not even one time, asked to change languages to appease someone else. Actually, quite the opposite, I found that my ability to converse in more than one language was celebrated no matter where I was. Of course, you know the old joke:

  • What do you call somebody who speaks three languages? Trilingual
  • What do you call somebody who speaks two languages? Bilingual
  • What do you call somebody who speaks one language? AMERICAN

Dora the ExplorerI was, and still am, angry that this culture accepts Ricky Martin when shaking his bon-bon, accepts Dora the Explorer or Diego when entertaining our children but, at the same time, frowns upon those who speaks a language other than the language that the masses speak. I am all for learning the language of the country you’re in. When I was in other European countries, I made every effort to learn as much of the language of the land I was visiting as possible. I didn’t develop native fluency beyond the two languages I have already learned but I embraced that there was a people who were different and, do you know what? They embraced me back for making the effort and were more likely to communicate with me! They celebrated that a Latino-North American who spoke Spanish with a Castilian accent would try and assimilate and take in their culture. That truly is a two-way street though!

The tendency NOT to do this is what leads our society on this side of the Atlantic to pass laws and ban literature that embark us down a dangerous path of cultural & multi-lingual intolerance and I, for one, will not teach my children in this manner. I hope and pray that more join me in this effort. Who knows? You may be next. They may not allow you to converse in your native tongue at work or elsewhere if more don’t stand up and condemn such intolerance.