Learn Spanish, Chump

by multilingualmania on February 17, 2011

in Anti-Bilingualism, Personal Stories


Some people say the strangest things to me sometimes. There are times when I can’t figure out if what someone is telling me has an undercurrent of racism, or if I am being hypersensitive. I suppose that I will never really know.

It may sound strange to some people, but as a white woman I really don’t have much contact with other white people. As long as I can remember, most of my friends have been latino or black. At work I tend to work more with Spanish-speaking populations and the only white people I come into contact with are some parents in the Dual Immersion program (who tend to be pretty cross-cultural) as well as some principals and teachers in schools.

I don’t really seem to connect with most white people, unless they are Spanish-speaking or possess a certain characteristic that I can identify as multicultural. I’m hypersensitive to the fact that I often think that they don’t appreciate my bilingualism or my appreciation of diversity. I don’t know if my perceptions are accurate or not.

Over the years I’ve found myself in strange situations where I ask, “Is this racism? Or is this a classic case of a person saying something weird or awkward?” I question whether I should say something or not.

Take for instance, one of my white, non-bilingual colleagues who is very supportive of bilingual education. However, every once in a while something comes out of her mouth that confuses me. A couple of times she has said, “They don’t hire white managers anymore” or “She’s a black’s black”, insinuating someone only cares about their own race. I never know how to react and typically tend to nervously say something like, “Well, they hired you and me” and then I quickly change the topic.

But then there are those other times when she will say something like, “These people just don’t want to teach latino or black kids. These people are racist against them”. These deviations from the suspect things that I’ve heard her say suddenly throw me into a state of disequilibrium.

Today I was at a meeting that was held in Spanish. All of the parents and students who attended were Spanish-speaking and all of the school personnel were Spanish-speaking, except one white non-Spanish speaking vice principal. I elected to hold the meeting in Spanish, since it was a parent meeting and all of the parents were Spanish-speaking.

At the end of the meeting the vice principal approached me and said, “I was the only person in the room who didn’t understand. I was the only one who didn’t speak Spanish. I was very uncomfortable”. Maybe it is just my interpretation, but I felt that he also followed me around a bit and hung around nervously.

I suddenly felt irritated, wondering if he was trying to subtly criticize that we were all speaking in Spanish. At the same time I wondered if it was an opportunity to have a discussion with a person who may have just felt like a minority for the first time. I suddenly blurted out, “You should learn Spanish. This school is 90% Latino, so I suggest you start learning Spanish”. His face had a flutter of shock, and then his expression quickly turned to nervousness.

I felt proud of myself, because in the past I always would just change the topic and never put my point of view on such public display. I would also always feel guilty afterward when I would wonder if I didn’t speak out against racism or intolerance.

When I got home tonight I sent a message to my boss about the conversation with the vice principal. I suddenly received a text that said “Brutal” and another text that said “Pobrecito”, poor guy. Next I called my boyfriend and told him about my response to him and he said, “Ouch. You were harsh. He wasn’t being rude, he was just sharing his feelings with you”.

I certainly don’t want to reproduce stereotypes or anything, but it just seems a bit far-fetched that some man who I don’t even really know is opening up his heart and feelings with me. (Insert the part where I sneeze and is sounds like ‘acho’, but I am really saying ‘bullshit’).

Tonight, instead of feeling guilty like I used to about not speaking out, I am wondering if I overreacted and said too much. I just may never really know.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa February 18, 2011 at 1:30 am

I can understand blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. I do think that turning the “blame” (your fault for being uncomfortable because you don’t know Spanish) around might not be the most helpful approach for that man himself to take something positive from the experience. A gentler way of using the teachable moment might have been, “I know, it’s uncomfortable being the only one, isn’t it?? Imagine how it must feel to live like that every day! We should really try to be sensitive to xxx…” Still pointed, I think, but less accusing maybe.

wenjonggal February 18, 2011 at 1:44 am

Well, I DO think he was sharing his feelings with you. Following you around, and acting nervous, vs acting belligerent and demanding, I would say, showed a feeling of lost vulnerability. And EXACTLY he felt what it was like to be in a minority for once, and feel like everyone else understood except himself. As a white man, a man in education in a position of authority, he is used to being the one who is understood, being the one surrounded by others of lesser understanding and in the minority, who are nervous and on uncertain ground.

I don’t think what you said to him was bad, and I don’t think that you should feel guilty, and I think you should say something more often instead of avoiding the issue. I DO think you were a bit brutal, but hey, what the heck! he’ll live! And he might have a eureka moment and get his butt to a class (though of course it is possible he is really bad at languages and thus has started a class or two and just felt lost and like he didn’t understand so didn’t continue… a choice that children and parents in his school system cannot afford to make by deciding to avoid learning English if it is hard for them).

Perhaps in the future you can still speak out, but say (kindly? :D) “Yes, you were in the minority. That must have felt different for you, and that is probably what many of our parents and students often feel when they are not in a majority spanish situation, or don’t understand what others are saying. It might help you out if you could learn some Spanish, as 90% of the students’ mother tongue is spanish. Then you could understand too, and not feel so isolated. I guess this was a learning experience! That’s great!”

But yeah, even pompous privileged white men have feelings, and esp feelings of inadequacy are hard for them, and they avoid them like the plague… so just acknowledging he was the ONLY one who didn’t understand and looking nervous (vs covering it up with aggression and superiority!) was a good thing! :) You must have felt like a safe haven for him since you are bilingual! :) Sometimes even bullshit is actually fertilizer that makes things grow!

Interesting experience. I hope you’ll keep speaking out.

Emily February 18, 2011 at 5:28 am

I am a Spanish teacher and a teacher trainer. I completely understand why you conducted the meeting in Spanish. Did the vice-principal know in advance that the meeting was going to be in Spanish? Perhaps he was nervous because he was caught off guard.

When I give presentations to teachers and student teachers of world languages, I give them in English unless I am sure that everyone in the room knows what is going on, or that it is listed in the program that the session will be presented in Spanish. Now, you knew he didn’t understand Spanish, but you also felt that some of the parents would feel more comfortable with Spanish because maybe their proficiency in English was limited. That’s perfectly acceptable.

Your suggestion that he learn Spanish was a bit blunt, but in the long run, it will be to his advantage, he will be a richer person, and can add a new dimension and understanding to his job if he learns a bit of español. Parents will appreciate it as well. But, in the end, it’s up to him to get his butt off the couch (or out of his office) and learn it.

Thank you for a most interesting article!

Patricia Reynolds February 18, 2011 at 6:48 am

I suddenly felt irritated, wondering if he was trying to subtly criticize that we were all speaking in Spanish.

He was .. and you picked up right away through his body language just how uncomfortable he felt.. as the superior in the room he may have assumed that the meeting would be conducted in his language.. while in effect for the benefit of the families it was conduted in theirs… hopefully your comments sent him off thinking about his adequacy for the role he plays in a 90% latino school!!
Did you ask him if this is how he felt.. to step into the shoes of the students and recognize they have these events and feelings all around them daily and to see how uncomfortable it might be??

multilingualmania February 18, 2011 at 8:07 am

You are right! I know that I was pretty blunt!

multilingualmania February 18, 2011 at 8:11 am

Yes, I know I was a bit mean. I think that I just get sick and tired every once in a while of trying to have the mental energy to know how to talk about difficult subjects in a nice way. I usually can do it, but perhaps I was having a bad day yesterday!

It’s interesting that he may have felt “safe” to tell me something, as you say. I tend to get frustrated when white people say something strange, although I am a white person, and I need to not jump to the immediate conclusion in my head that they are a racist and therefore I stay away from them. Maybe they just want to talk about something and me being patient and kind will open up their perspectives.

multilingualmania February 18, 2011 at 8:13 am

In the beginning of the meeting I asked if everyone spoke Spanish. He did raise his hand that he didn’t. Then I said that because all of the parents spoke spanish that we would have the meeting in Spanish. This also might be a secondary school thing too, which I’ve been thinking about, because many of the secondary schools typically on a general scale don’t seem to “accomodate” parents.

multilingualmania February 18, 2011 at 8:14 am

I should have asked him that. I should have tried to make a point about feeling like a minority, and should have mentioned that this is how parent often feel when they enter into an office or the school. But I was perhaps a little bit too blunt and in the future I am going to try to have more patience.

smashedpea February 18, 2011 at 8:30 am

I read your VP more as having issues with the power relations rather than being hostile to having the meeting in Spanish – you know, presumably he was the highest level manager there and he’s probably not used to being left out of the conversation, even if he understood that having the meeting in Spanish was the right thing to do.

And while I agree that he should be speaking Spanish if the school is 90% Latino as you say, I can also understand feeling uncomfortable in room full of people whose language you don’t speak/understand. So yeah, what Melissa said re: the sublety of your message :)

multilingualmania February 18, 2011 at 8:41 am

Thank you, you are absolutely correct!

Melissa February 18, 2011 at 10:19 am

Agree with smashedpea; I was also thinking after my earlier comment that this may well have been the first time in this man’s life where he was so obviously and uncomfortably the outsider. I remember my first similar experience: I wasn’t angry or threatened by it, it was just such a new and surreal experience (holy crap, so THIS is what minorities feel like all the time! and I just take fitting in for granted!) that I can understand Mr. VP being driven to comment on it to someone, anyone…and you were the closest to him. :)

THW February 19, 2011 at 11:36 am

He is a teacher, and worse yet, a senior administrator, responsible for the health and safety of minors every day. And he can’t communicate with them or their parents if/when they revert to their maternal language under stress? Sorry, I thought your remark was pretty mild, considering.

Spanglish Queen February 23, 2011 at 8:56 am

“I suddenly felt irritated, wondering if he was trying to subtly criticize that we were all speaking in Spanish. ”

He was. Why else would he say anything? I actually am annoyed because I find it to be really arrogant. As if you were supposed to cater to him because the language is English. Welcome to being a minority-get over it.

I fail to see how saying “you should learn Spanish” is mean. Give me a break! You are working in an environment where most people speak the language- here’s a tip- learn it! People would have no problem replacing “Spanish” with “English” if the situation was reversed.

multilingualmania February 28, 2011 at 10:10 am

That’s exactly how I feel SpanglishQueen! It’s not as if it’s an insult to tell him to learn Spanish considering that his population is so heavily spanish speaking. If I suddenly were working with an arabic speaking population, I would try to learn arabic so that I could communicate with the families. There are tons of free opportunities that he can take advantage of to learn the language.

Kingfrak March 4, 2011 at 7:21 am

In my opinion, you are a very sick woman. You are saddled with bizarre apprehensions, conflicted thoughts and unjustified hostilities. You are (oddly) either too in love with your own proficiency in the Spanish language, and/or you have no connection with your own family, culture and ethnicity. If that is so, that is a very sad and unhealthy development.
Additionally, you are being very judgmental and bigoted in the truest sense of the term. You seem to relish your rudeness and love to alienate people. There is a chip on your shoulder the size of a Buick! There is a hypocrisy that is implicit and innate in your opinions and you seem oblivious to that.

Kingfrak March 4, 2011 at 7:32 am

All of you commentators are forgetting 1 essential fact–This is the United States of America and English is the language of the land. The country was founded and all documents written in the English language.
It is arrogant for you to expect the VP to speak a foreign language. Would you go to Germany to live and start demanding that they speak Spanish or English? How about China? Do you think Japan would be so accommodating to your bilingual demands? When I was in Chile for several months, I found nobody who spoke English, yet I understood that this was the language of their country and they were proud to speak it. I wasn’t seething with hatred for their lack of English. When you go to a foreign country that speaks a different language, whether you can find an enclave of your own people or not, it would only be from the depths of arrogance to demand your own language spoken.

multilingualmania March 7, 2011 at 11:34 pm

@Kingfrak Actually, English isn’t the law of the land. There is no “official language” on the books and this country is extremely multilingual.

Yes, Germany, China, Japan, etc are pretty bilingual. To answer your question, if you go to many of the tourist areas, they more often than not cater to their clientele and are extremely multilingual. My point exactly. If someone is working in an area that has a group of people who speak another language, it would probably help to connect with the group of people if you attempted to learn the language. Have a nice day!

multilingualmania March 7, 2011 at 11:37 pm

@Kingfrak “bizarre apprehension, conflicted thoughts and unjustified hostilities”. That sounds like a great quote that I will be using in one of my next posts! You actually don’t know me, so I’d say that it’s a little premature to say that it’s unjustified hostility. I’m glad that you believe that I have no connection to my own culture. I’ve often thought that this is what some Non bilingual people who are the same race as me think, but they never really say. Bravo!! I’ll dedicate my upcoming post “Race Traitor” to you!

Wenjonggal March 8, 2011 at 4:56 am

“It is arrogant for you to expect the VP to speak a foreign language. Would you go to Germany to live and start demanding that they speak Spanish or English? How about China? Do you think Japan would be so accommodating to your bilingual demands?”

That is beyond funny. Most European countries start learning a second language in grade one-three, and then a third language by middle school. Usually in University they have 3-4 languages. How do you think that someone who speaks Danish or Eastonian gets along in the world, beyond their borders or with people coming in? You could say “translators”, but that would mean that there are hundreds of thousands of excellent translators, ie people from Germany, Denmark, China, Japan etc who are just like the writer of this blog: who spend so much time learning a language non native to them that they are professional in it and can be paid to translate any topic anywhere between these unilingual German, Japanese, Danish people (whether a waitress in a tourist area, a teacher in a school with a lot of immigrant families, any business person wishing to buy goods outside their country, do banking internationally etc)… so your argument ruins itself.

The USA is one of the few places in the world that seems to PRIDE itself on unilingualism. Right now I am learning Chinese, and I must say that even Chinese who have been here a few months speak excellent English… why is that? Because the Chinese are learning English in school! Imagine that! Not just staying monolingual at home and then, having had no foreign language training, come to Canada and start being intelligible in English because English is the language here.

This VP is the principal of a school with a majority of Spanish speaking students, who I would imagine are all learning English and learning IN English, and probably within one generation will have switched over to English as their primary language: thus fulfilling your “All US is Anglophone” mandate, but the parents are majority Hispanic, and if he had any initiative whatsoever, he would learn enough Spanish to follow a conversation. I would think that it would be part of his job. If he worked in a school teaching Cree students in Northern Quebec, which btw is French and English, I would expect him to show some initiative in his job performance by taking Cree classes (I have a friend who is doing an anthropology internship in northern Quebec, teaching in a college there, and he is doing just that, taking Cree classes to be able to better speak with the community, especially the elders who are less fluent than his students in English.

I am learning Chinese because my son was born in China. We speak English at home (as I am anglophone), French at school and in the street (as we are in Quebec) and we are learning Chinese. I certainly see it as my duty to learn enough Chinese to get along with the parents at my son’s Saturday Chinese class and help him with his heritage, despite it being neither of the official languages of Canada. And I’m not even the VP!!! BTW, I *AM* proud of my heritage, and learned Swedish and German as a young adult and in my childhood… it certainly doesn’t stop me from learning Chinese now.

vfwh March 9, 2011 at 2:09 am

There is a lot of self-delusion going on here about how “other countries are all so welcoming to foreigners”, culminating with the fantastic comment from Wenjonggal that in Europe most people in university “have 3-4 languages”. No: they don’t.

Multilingualism in Europe is a little more common than in the US, but don’t get carried away. European countries, all of them, care very deeply about their language. Some of them have laws that compel local language tests for people asking to be naturalized, and so on. Those that don’t, debate about whether they should. I’m certainly not aware of any country where people can take their driving test in the language they want. Nor can I conceive, here in France, nor in Germany, Italy, Holland and so on, of any school where an official school meeting would be held entirely in a language other than the local language, and where the principal of the school would be kept out of the discussion deliberately. I would find that deeply offensive. There are situations where a person will translate if too many people don’t speak the local language. As far as I can tell, the US is one of the most tolerant countries in the world to people who just won’t speak the local language.

Why only insist on multilingualism for the locals, and find it perfectly OK for foreigners to not bother with the local language? I don’t get that view. As Wenjonggal says: she speaks English *at home*, *French at school* because they’re in Québec. Why do you refuse applying to others the standards of honor that you apply to yourself?

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