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May 13, 2010



Great article. It made me think about the issue from different perspectives. I have wanted to learn Spanish as a second language for a long time. Not only would it set me apart the next time I'm job-seeking, but it would also give me an opportunity to experience other cultures and to communicate with more people. This article was another prod in that direction for me. Thanks!


I'm trying to learn Spanish now as my third language. I can already speak Japanese well enough to get by (reading it is another story--I'm working on that).

One time, I was walking on Broadway over by Wall Street and a Japanese tourist, complete with a guide book proclaiming "New York" in katakana, walked past me, looking lost. She turned, walked a bit, turned again. I walked over to her, and asked, in Japanese, "Can I help you?"

She looked so stunned, and so relieved. It's so great to make someone feel a little more welcome here. There is never a downside to being able to understand someone else, and be understood by them.

Anne McGravie

Of course the United States needs to be bilingual. Canada is. Britain is slowly becoming the harbor for Africans of many languages. The sooner we lose our "us" and "them" approach to languages the sooner we become a truly sophisticated society.
Anne McGravie

Cynthia Pfaff

I think it's great that we have so many different nationalities living together in this nation, the only problem is when they want to come into America, disrespect Her and ignore the Constitution that makes Her as great as She is. I was born in Miami and it's been about 25 years since I was able to get a job there because I am not biligual. America has shown respect for new comers, just have some respect for the natives and the country they love.


In New York City there are people from almost, if not every, continent on the globe.
Many have gathered in their own communities.
Sometimes it is difficult to determine which is the largest group. I find it is wise to try to learn a few basic words of each.
Spanish is the predominant foreign language in most of New York. I am thankful for having had Spanish for a number of years in school. Because dialects and idioms vary from country to country, translation is not always immediate, but with patience one can get along. It is best to try to understand what people are saying, their likes and dislikes. If you have lived here all of your life, a little of every culture (European) has touched you or forced you to interact. I would say in the past 20-25 years the Asian and African
ethnicity have begun to join us.
I think all in all it's very good. You can come to the absolute conclusion that all people are alike. It is best to try and learn or understand some of the language of at least the largest new group.
If we refuse to learn we will find that we will become the outsiders. Most foreigners are bilingual.

Sharon Freden

What a sane, practical piece of writing!! Prior to reading this, I had opened an e-mail containing a picture of a t-shirt saying "I Want You to Speak English," with Uncle Sam doing his usual pointing. The accompanying text suggested all of the places to which one could wear such a shirt. It was, in short, a backward, ignorant commentary on the people who wrote it. The piece I've just read is much more mature and sensible. One would sometimes think that people in our country are stupid; it is not unusual for Europeans to speak at least three languages fluently. Surely we are smart enough to learn two.

CJ Ink

Bravo! I totally agree. I live in a very multi-cultural town south of Seattle WA and am delighted to hear so many languages on the bus into the city. At least I can pick up on the French and Spanish, but when it comes to any of the Eastern European or Asian languages, I haven't got a clue and I wish I did. I heard a couple speaking what was probably an African language. I was desperately wishing I could have them teach me to say something.
The other part of this is that I am so embarrassed to think that in AZ now any of my neighbors could be asked for their "papers" and even if they just did not understand the question, they could be sent to jail. It's outrageous! I hope such nonsense will become illegal in all states. It's just not American.
Thanks for your thoughtful essay.


Tri-lingual, actually: English, German, and Russian. So yeah, I'll support America as a multi-lingual nation, if Spanish speakers agree to learn German, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Romanian, Greek, Polish, French, Swahili, Urdu, and Farsi, in addition to English. Get the drift?? THIS is why America needs to be a single-language nation. By our very definition, there's only one language that UNITES everybody. Promoting one foreign language over all the others fragments.

John F.

How do I feel when I hear a second language spoken in the U.S.? Great. Really great. Especially when that speaker is a native English speaker who has opened up to learning another language.

Don't get me wrong... I think it's great for America when you've got someone whose native tongue is something OTHER than English too. Because, as more historically savvy Americans always recognize, the resilience of the English language and even America, the idea, is directly dependent on an influx of new influences.

But what's also nice about a native English speaker that's bilingual or better is that it's evidence that we're getting past that backward protectionism that perversely threatens the very thing some are so ardent to protect.

I grew up in the States and started spending a good chunk of time in Europe in my mid-30s. Now I speak French and English and a bit of Spanish. I feel like it helps me clarify my own ideas, it's made me better in my own native tongue, and -- most importantly -- it's helped me blow through the preconceptions I once had about another culture. Now that I KNOW what people are saying, it's so much clearer to me how similar we all are.

You ask in your headline "Is it time to be a Bilingual Nation?" Great question, with a funny answer. In many ways, the U.S. already is a bilingual nation. Even a tri-lingual or quad-lingual nation. Or more. The melting pot still simmers, with many languages other than English both spoken and taught behind closed doors, in the back rooms of our businesses both large and small, in taxi cabs and between friends.

What it is, IS time for Americans to wake up and admit -- no, embrace -- this fact. Ignorance naturally makes people afraid. But what's really threatened?

In Europe, people living near the borders often speak three or more languages. And it hasn't brought any of those countries crashing down. Sure, immigration is something people need to talk about. But language isn't the reason it has to come up.

LaNelle Chancellor

I find it interesting that you said in this article "while doing business in India. I wasn’t expecting it (English) on factory trips in Thailand and Vietnam."

If you want to help immigrants in the US in a way other than being able to speak English, why do you have your factories in other countries when you could pay these Latino immigrants with work in this country?

Rita Browning

I have often wondered why it is 'educated' to speak English and Spanish if one is American, but not if one is from Latin America. Maybe it's because my husband had 3 tours of duty in Europe and I have been on the outside as a non-German speaker that I can sympathize with those trying to learn English here in the States. There seems to be a growing segment of our population that is automatically against everything that is not exactly like themselves. To me that seems like ignorance...which can be remedied, unlike stupidity, which cannot.

Rita Browning

In Germany, the kids start a second language in 1st grade – what a great idea – if everyone was tri-lingual or even more! It is so empowering to be able to speak another language, but scary to not be able to when you need to make a living….

Stephen Smith

Thanks for an insightful post, these are some good points that you have raised. In my opinion, English should be the "official" language, for government forms and such - however - *much* more emphasis should be put on teaching languages to American students in public schools.

Younger children especially have an easier time learning new languages, and there is no good reason that American High School graduates should not be able to speak 2 (or more!) languages fluently.

David Haigh

I could not agree more, English is a thriving, vibrant language. I teach elementary school; a few words to a child in their home language make a world of difference. I have never had a parent of a 2nd language learner that has not wanted them to be proficient in English as fast as possible. Immigrants to this country want this country, not the one they left behind.

Carol Hill

I live in Leadville, Colorado, where the Hispanic population has been growing for years, drawn to this area by work in the nearby ski resorts (Vail, Beaver Creek, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, etc.). Four or five years ago our school district announced that English was the second language for almost 60% of the students.

As a business owner (bookstore) I've attempted to welcome and serve our immigrant population. For three or four years I carried a wide variety of Spanish and bi-lingual books, and about three dozen Spanish language magazines, both the Spanish language versions of popular English magazines, and magazines from Mexico. In spite of window signs announcing "Revistas y libros en enspanol", they never attracted a following and I had to discontinue them.

One day while expressing my dismay and frustration over my failed attempt, I commented that maybe it was that no one in the store spoke much Spanish, although I didn't see how that could be since the number of Spanish-speaking customers has pretty much remained the same for the past twelve years--there had been no increase when I brought in the Spanish language material, and no decrease when I discontinued it. Immediately a local teacher jumped in to explain that it had little to nothing to do with not speaking Spanish in the store, but rather the fact that most of our immigrants are here illegally. She pointed out that in spite of their large numbers we rarely see immigrants downtown--about the only place we see them shopping is at the grocery store. She went on to note that from her experience with parents, most of the immigrants arrive here speaking enough English to manage basic business transactions. So, it seems to me the problem of integrating into the larger society has more to do with illegality than language, and that is the more urgent issue.

For what it's worth, I believe a major effort needs to be made to change the immigrant narrative in the "American" mind, and the first thing that needs to be understood is that it is possible--and I believe preferable--for immigrants to be here legally without being granted citizenship. There is a difference between "legal immigrant" status and U.S. citizenship, a difference that seems to get lost in these discussions. I think there should be some kind of amnesty that grants legal immigrant status but not citizenship to the 12+ million people who are already here and part of our communities. I believe citizenship should still be acquired the way it always has been, after studying the history, politics, and economic system of the U.S. The U.S. isn't a matter of geography--it is an idea. I want my fellow citizens to be people who have deliberately chosen to be a citizen because they understand and believe in the founding principles of limited government, individual rights, personal freedom, and personal responsibility--who buy into ideas like freedom of speech, religious tolerance, trial by jury, free markets, etc. As citizens, any of us may be called on to defend our country, and it would be pretty hard to defend something you don't even believe in.

All my encounters with members of our immigrant community have always been pleasant, even on those awkward occasions when someone's English is about the same as my ability with Spanish. I've even played some pretty funny charades with some customers as we attempted to communicate, resulting in lots of laughter and no one feeling offended. One of the lessons I've learned is that with lots of patience and a good sense of humor, people without a common language still find a way to communicate.

A few weeks after my son (now 38) started first grade, he came home one afternoon with the little boy from next door, announcing they were going to play in his room until 5 o'clock, when this little boy's Mom was going to come and get him. Busy in the kitchen, I just said "okay" as they passed through the room. I'd seen the little boy from time to time (the family had moved in during the summer) and knew he was in my son's class, so nothing seemed unusual about them wanting to play together, and as my son was a little shy, I was glad to see that he was making friends. After about an hour I realized I wasn't hearing any of the noise coming from his room that was common when my son was playing with his cousins or my friends' kids. As any parent knows, when your kids are quiet, it usually means they are up to no good, so I went to check on them. Opening the door, I saw both of them sitting on the floor, an entire 'Matchbox' village and race track between them, and my son's hands moving in the air like he was picking at something or playing finger games. Naturally, I asked him what he was doing, and his simple reply was, "talking." Two six-year old boys weren't going to let a little thing like the lack of a common language keep them from 'communicating' and, most importantly, playing. The neighbor boy was deaf and my son was learning to sign so they could "talk."

Right then I learned how powerful the human need and desire to communicate really is. And humans have been expanding and transforming language since they started to speak, and then write. Next time you find yourself confronted by an "English only" advocate, read a little Beowulf to them--or some Shakespear, or even the Federalist papers. Most people struggle to understand the English that was being used 200 years ago, let alone Old English, which sounds like a foreign language to most Americans. The English we use today is a conglomeration of languages, with all its Latin and Greek roots, the contributions of the Angles, the Saxons, the Picts, and the Scots, etc. And this doesn't even include all the "americanization" of the English language done by generations of immigrants. In my part of the country, everything from the name of the state (Colorado) to towns and streets, to mountains and common food speaks as much of our hispanic and native american heritage as it does of our English/European. The next two towns down the Valley are Buena Vista and Salida, I've hiked in the San Juan and Sangre De Cristo mountains, I buy frijoles, tortillas, and jalapenos almost every week, I once lived on Kickapoo Street and had a friend who lived on Mariposa, and my sister-in-law's maiden name was Trujillo. And, this blue-eyed blonde with Swedish ancestors can write a sentence like, "He was rolled in his blanket like a tortilla, his head sticking out one end, his feet the other," because I know everyone "gets" the imagery.

The point is, language didn't finish evolving with advent of modern, American English. And personally, even if we someday end up with a global language, I don't think it ever will, because at the point at which language would stop expanding and evolving, so would human knowledge.

Carol Hill


Dear Readers and Writers,

Wow, humbled again I am by your elegant writing and thoughtful concepts. Thank you for widening my perspective and the discussion. The stories from Colorado and Germany are so telling. And thank you, Elizabeth, for this gem: "If we refuse to learn we will find that we will become the outsiders."



Steve Leveen

Dear LaNelle,

Good question on helping immigrants in this country. As for sourcing overseas, we go to where the best products are made for the best prices, as we think this is in the interest of our customers and international relations. In "The Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World by William Bernstein," he explains how, in general, trade promotes peace. We do employ several folks at all our locations who are immigrants, not because we set out to particularly, but because they were the best applicants. Watch the next post on Bilingual Nation for more details. And thanks for being a Well-Read Life reader.

All best, Steve

Ian Waltenbery

Nicely done. As an Anglo Canadian--a sort of bilingual nation--I agree with everything you said.

Ian Waltenbery

Lynn K. Buchanan

A young man in the Yakima Valley (WA) applied for a job as an "engineer" (everything from computer repair, heating and cooling, to floor care) in a small school district. He knew all they needed and had quite a bit of experience behind him. They were on the verge of hiring him when a lady walked in and started speaking Mexican to him. He said he didn't understand and she really berated him, didn't he read the ad?, it said "must be bilingual."

He replied, "I speak English, I speak Dutch, what does "bilingual" mean? He was hired. (he came from an area of many Dutch folks)

Bryan Baker

I had the good fortune to visit Paris, France this past April. Many natives spoke English. What was embarrassing to me is that I did not speak French, at least not well enough to have a conversation. Communication is vital in this world economy. It also opens your world. Guess who's learning French?

Bryan Baker


I speak French, and some German, and would love to get round to studying a little Spanish and Mandarin. I agree the study of language is enriching, and it's a pity Americans don't pursue more of it.

One has to smirk a bit, however, at the Utopian tone of this week's blog. It's small help to the debate to pretend that the most contentious issues are due principally to such straw-man "myths," The use of images is provocative and effective, dismissing a conjured picture of conspiratorial café con leches and instead promoting one of sophisticated bilingual business tête-à-têtes in Miami high-rise offices.

Nevertheless, we need to get real. Why is it that most adult immigrants want to learn English, but instead we persist with so-called "bilingual education" programs that seem to ensure no English is ever learned in the schools? We also need to establish that no one has the right to go to Town Hall and demand that every piece of official business be done in any language demanded. There certainly aren't any other countries where one can do so, no matter how polyglot they may be, officially or unofficially.

martha hart

Fabulous piece - thanks for the viewpoint. I've lived in southern California most of my life and finally, at 56, am starting to learn Spanish in a university extension program and immersion excursions to Mexico and South America.

It's not just the words and the grammar, but the culture that informs the language (which is why I loved your post on the proverbs!) ... we are all richer for learning more, no matter which language we start with or where we live. Think globally, act linguistically...

Kathryn Richardson

Altho' I seem to be a language dunce, I envy ANYONE who is even semi-fluent in a 2nd language. I think being a translator somewhere like the UN would be awesome. Alas & alack! But why stop at bilingual? Why not encourage fluency in as many languages as any particular person can learn? Sure a minimum of two...but more if the individual is able!

New Mexico Service Ella

Brilliant piece of writing, sir! I love your take on this topic. I am also humbled that Americans would actually consider being bilingual as English is what most countries in this world (especially those from poorer nations) aspire to learn and excel in. Thanks again for this post.

John F.


I came here via a note on my site that said you'd linked this to me somehow (copywritersroundtable.com). I didn't find the link but I did find your wonderful article.

I couldn't agree more.

Instead of investing energy in forcing immigrants to only speak English, we should invest ourselves in learning Spanish. And Chinese. And French. And whatever else we can manage.

We live a good part of the year in France and our children were born here. Our children are 8 and 6 and both are fluent in both English and French... and now they're studying Italian (I'm hoping Spanish will soon follow.)

My wife and I also speak a fair amount of French, but we still have low moments where we're trying to figure it out. In those moments, I find it easy to feel for those new to the U.S. who are trying to figure things out.

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