Speaking your mind

Which language should you speak in the US?

Texas is the second largest state and has the second largest number of Spanish speakers in the US. It used to be part of Spain and then was incorporated into Mexico after independence from Madrid in 1810.

Last month, Texan senator Tom Harris blew his top when Antonlin Aguirre, an immigrant, chose to speak in Spanish before him in a state committee.

Antonlin Aguirre appearing on the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security

Source: StandWithAZ, YouTube, 14 July 2011

The man’s interpreter explained that his client felt more comfortable expressing himself in his mother tongue, which was Spanish. English is the de facto language of the US and there have been unsuccessful campaigns to try to instate it as the one official national language. But of the 307 million citizens, about 35 million speak Spanish: the second highest number of speakers after English.

Mr Harris argued that since Mr Aguirre had lived in the US since 1988 he ought to have learnt English confidently enough by now. But it is a less clear-cut situation than that. Spanish has been the traditional language of these parts longer than English. In fact, were it not for the English capture of the New Netherland colony in the 1660s, Mr Harris may well have challenged Mr Aguirre for not speaking Dutch.

The US prides itself on being a free and fair country, but it is also a nation of immigrants. The largest and most important minority are the Spanish-speakers. Earlier in the year, the Cuban academic Humberto Lopez Morales predicted that by 2050, the US will be the world’s largest Hispanophone country, outstripping Mexico, the current leader. It is folly of Mr Harris to pretend that everyone learns, understands or enjoys speaking English in his state. Texas (7 million Spanish-speakers) is not Vermont (5,000); it used to be a Spanish-speaking land (and an Amerindian-speaking one before that). Spanish is an official tongue in Puerto Rico (presently an American territory, but one that has aspirations to statehood) where nearly 95% of the population speak el castellano. Unsurprisingly, 43% of New Mexicans speak Spanish.

There are millions of people who do not speak Spanish in the US and it is the most important Anglophone country in the world. Mr Aguirre did try to speak some English in the meeting but he has probably lived in a Hispanophone community for many years, as many millions of Hispanic-Americans do. English is certainly far-and-away the de facto language of the US and although it could be argued that citizens should try to learn some, many Americans get by without having to do so. It would be foolish to presume that those Americans who blurt out ‘good morning’ are somehow greater citizens than those who say ‘buenos dias’.

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