Even though I don’t remember not being able to speak or understand English, technically it is my second language. Spanish is my first. Growing up, though, you could even say I knew more English than Spanish, as evidenced by my lack of Spanish vocabulary and writing skills.
As a teenager and now an adult, I’ve come to take more pride in my Latino culture. I use Spanish a lot more. I’ve taken classes for native speakers so I’ve got the Spanish writing skills that many second or third generation Mexican Americans don’t have.
Sometimes I even have an accent in English or find that I can’t “switch back” to English.
Being Asked Not to Speak Spanish at Work
It’s normal for me to think and speak in Spanish at home, with Latino friends, and family. When I was working a while back, I had a coworker who was also Latina. When the day was slow, we would often have conversations in Spanish. We would laugh or talk about something serious, sometimes in front of coworkers.
We didn’t think we were offending anyone. That was never our intent.
But one day another coworker asked us to stop speaking Spanish and use English instead.
She said she didn’t like not knowing what we were talking about. This was a beloved and older coworker we greatly respected and admired. I’m sure she didn’t mean to offend us. But she did.
I felt hurt, like this language I had grown up with and saw as a part of my identity was inferior. It didn’t belong there.
What did we do? We disagreed with what she said, but didn’t say anything. We started speaking English.
I wish that was the only time something like this had happened. But it wasn’t.
Being Asked Not to Speak Spanish at School
In high school, I can think of at least one time in which a teacher made my friends and me stop speaking Spanish or we would be in trouble. She didn’t like not knowing what we were talking about either.
In that setting, I can understand why we would be asked to use English instead. But I also think there’s a right way to say it.
As someone who is Latina and is also going to be a teacher, I would say something like this: “I know you guys enjoy speaking Spanish (or whatever language), but I’m supposed to know what you guys are talking about. It’s my job. I’m not saying this to offend you or belittle you, but do you mind speaking English instead?” I would also make sure not to say this out loud in front of the entire class because that just embarrasses the students and alienates them further.
In a work environment, I guess it boils down to policy. But I think that next time I would speak my thoughts, explaining that Spanish is simply the language I feel most comfortable communicating in, and I don’t do it to talk behind anyone’s back or offend.
What Should We Do About It?
Some people will immediatley cry, “This is America! We speak English here!”
Exactly. This is America. A country built on many, many cultures, races, and languages. I dare that person to research their ancestors or heritage. Did they always speak English?
I also know that there are some people who might take advantage of their bilingualism to speak ill of others in front of them. What can you do? It’s gonna happen. Everyone does it, even people who only speak one language. I don’t think prohibiting any language other than English is the solution. In fact, most of the nations of the world have more than one official language.
Some people also expect non-English speakers to learn to speak English because they live here. I agree , but learning a new language takes years. And many of these people do learn to speak or at least understand English.
If anything, the people that live here should also learn to speak at least one other language. Maybe then we wouldn’t be so uneasy when it comes to hearing people speak unknown languages in front of us. Learning a second language would also help us appreciate other cultures, languages, and lifestyles.
What’s your view on this issue? Do you think people are talking about you when they speak other languages? Do you feel uncomfortable not knowing what they’re talking about? I’d love to hear your say in the comments. But as always, remember to be respectful of others’ opinions.