A bilingual message for Ms. Xenophobe
Los Angeles Times
September 22, 2005

Does hearing Spanish make you twitchy? Maybe
California just isn't the place for you.

Note: Andres Martinez is the editorial page editor of
the LATimes.


  SO MUCH FOR Santa Monica being ground zero for
tolerance and progressivism.

Recently at a Whole Foods Market — itself supposedly
a beacon of touchy-feeliness — a woman accosted my son
Sebastian's baby-sitter for speaking to him in

  Sebastian, all of 11 months, was eyeing some fruit
being offered for tasting, so Ursula asked him,
"Quieres probar?" That's when this perfect stranger —
let's call her Ms. Xenophobe — swooped in to impart
her hateful ignorance: "You shouldn't speak Spanish to
that child," she said, "I am sure that's not what the
parents want."

  She is sure, is she?

  Such breathtaking impudence; if only I had been there
to give this woman a piece of my mind.

  It isn't just that the father of this blond child
happens to be a blond half-Mexican, or my suspicion
that nosy Ms. Xenophobe might not have minded so much
if Ursula had been speaking to Sebastian in Swedish or
German. What is most disheartening about the incident
is how mainstream this woman's views are about the
undesirability of American kids learning a foreign

  This isn't a plea for immigrants to go about their
business exclusively in their native languages. I am
not someone who believes that you can be a full member
of the American community without speaking English,
which is why I have qualms about open-ended bilingual

  But if it's important for immigrants to learn English
in order to assimilate into our society, it's equally
important for all Americans — regardless of their
ethnicity — to be exposed to foreign languages in
order to assimilate into the broader world.

  And if people like Ms. Xenophobe think a blond
child's command of English will naturally suffer if he
is exposed to a second language, they underestimate
the dexterity of a child's mind and human

  I WAS RAISED speaking both English and Spanish, and I
sound like what I am: a native speaker of both. This
is no reflection on my abilities; it's a matter of
when I was exposed to the languages. It wasn't until I
studied French and Russian later on that I realized
what a gift it was to have been exposed to two
languages at such an early age. Go to a country such
as the Netherlands and you encounter an entire
population that seems bilingual, if not trilingual.
It's rather humbling.

  Such is the disdain for foreign languages in this
country, many second-generation Americans feel
compelled to drop their ancestral language. When I
first came to the U.S. as a student, I was stunned to
discover that some of my Mexican American classmates
spoke no Spanish. In some cases, presumably because of
a defensiveness beaten into them by societal
pressures, they seemed to resent my expectation that
they would.

  Within the United States, only Utah seems to
sufficiently appreciate the need to encourage
multilingualism among native-born kids, and that has
something to do with the Mormon Church's need for
missionaries. Utah starts kids in a second language
early and makes them stick with it; many American
schools start just about the time that kids lose their
ability to effortlessly pick them up.

  Still, it's a good thing that the Los Angeles Unified
School District recently moved to stiffen high school
foreign language requirements. (Not so good is the
politically correct trend at some colleges to consider
sign language a foreign language.)

  Ms. Xenophobe's reaction to Ursula speaking to
Sebastian in Spanish is almost comical, given his
heritage. Instead of being outraged, she should have
been particularly pleased to see someone she believed
not to be Latino learning Spanish.

  The notion that it's somehow unpatriotic to encourage
blond toddlers in Santa Monica to speak a second
language is not only narrow minded and provincial, it
is itself unpatriotic. The United States, not unlike
the Mormon Church, has a strategic need for
multilingual citizens. The nation's need is a matter
of economic competitiveness and national security. We
understand this as a society in moments of crisis — after the Soviets launched Sputnik, say, or when Washington realized it had a shortage of Arabic translators in the aftermath of Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks — but we do little about it day in and day out.

  My last message to Ms. Xenophobe: If the sound of foreign languages and cultural diversity makes you so twitchy, maybe California is not the place for you.

  And haven't you noticed your city's name is in Spanish?