I have been learning Spanish off and on for the last 17 years. At times, I’d have actual classes, but I went through periods of time where I wasn’t taking classes and would therefore go without any usage of the language.
Nobody in my immediate family has ever spoken or understood Spanish, and all of my friends and coworkers would speak English with me for the majority of my life. There has never been really any pressure for me to learn Spanish.
On top of that, I was always completely terrified to practice speaking it. Even once I got to university and was able to read and write in Spanish fairly well, I’d avoid speaking it as much as possible. I had always been paranoid about speaking incorrectly, or making any mistakes or even being completely incomprehensible to people.
I feel like this type of fear is understandable for a lot of people, especially when learning a new language, but this fear for me wasn’t reinforced by society. I was able to get away with my limited speaking of Spanish, even as I was encouraged by all of my teachers that my speaking was fine and would only improve with practice.
Nobody was putting me down, or shaming me in any way; I was the only one discouraging myself. By the time I was going to study abroad in Ecuador for almost five months, I had had probably two conversations in Spanish, and I was ready to fix that.
The first couple days were rough, and I don’t doubt that it was a real struggle to communicate with me. However, I found that after a week or so, I was able to actually have conversations with my host family.
Even with my terrible grammar and complete lack of understanding regarding the past tenses, I was able to get by and eventually interact with people effectively enough to travel around and work completely in Spanish.
And I don’t tell this story to imply that I’m some linguistic superstar, because I certainly am not. My success was not because of my capabilities but because of the receptiveness of the people around me to my efforts.
At every stage of my language journey, no matter how weak my skills were, I was given encouragement and help. People tried their hardest to explain things in a manner that would make sense to me. People slowed things down, corrected me, taught me new words or dialect differences.
I was also consistently praised for my efforts and the quality of my language skills (even when I felt that I wasn’t doing any better than adequate). People outside of the program were frequently surprised and delighted that a gringa como yo was using Spanish and chatting with them and doing so well.
And this wasn’t in a condescending way either; people were genuinely surprised and excited because they were so used to being forced into using what little English capabilities they may have to communicate with white people in their own country.
When I came back to the United States, the response to my newfound language capabilities was similar.
People who didn’t speak Spanish would be impressed that I was able to and frequently say how much they wanted that skill. People who did speak Spanish were excited and happy to help me practice, and usually pretty impressed that I could hold even simple conversations with them.
This was great for me, and it gave me a lot of confidence and motivation to continue improving my skills.
However, with all of these experiences, I became way more aware of how the treatment I received was certainly not the treatment given to many multilingual people in the United States.
Unlike the majority of countries around the world, the United States has the strange circumstance of having no official language and also having a culture that discourages the usage and learning of languages other than English.
There is this kind of strange hostility that exists towards people using other languages, and just from the positive reinforcement that I had received, it was clear that it wasn’t so much about using more than one language; it was about who was speaking and how.
If you are white and your first language is English, and you have the privilege of learning another language with some degree of fluency, you are praised and seen as intelligent and skilled. If you are someone whose first language isn’t English, and you have taken the effort to learn and use English, and especially if you are an immigrant or a POC, it is expected and taken for granted.
I have seen so many people mocked or critiqued for their usage of English or for combining languages in order to get by, and it’s disgusting. This behaviour truly demonstrates that the aversion to a multilingual standard in our country stems from racism and xenophobia.
More than anything, increasing our language capabilities should be about increasing and fostering effective communication. To be able to connect with people through languages is brilliant and beautiful. The rules and structures of languages are in a constant state of development, and our societies need to adapt to this.
From much earlier in school, students in the United States should be sharing and building their language capabilities. We should not hold fear or hate in our voices any longer. We need to decolonise how we communicate.