Speak English so migrants can embrace the language
Arizona Republic
Jun. 5, 2006


My Turn
As a part-time pizza delivery driver in west Phoenix, I used to speak with my Hispanic customers in Spanish, if only to practice rolling my "r's,"  silencing my "h's," or just showing off my rudimentary skills in the language.

But no mas, mis amigos - no more, my friends. I now have a self-imposed rule to conduct all of my transactions in English. This is not some mean-spirited act of defiance; it's simply that I'm doing a disservice by speaking Spanish to my Spanish-speaking neighbors.

In order for them to fully reap the benefits of life in these United States, they must embrace the language of the land.

The vast majority of my customers are Latino. Every night on my delivery routes, it's the same scene repeated many times over: I'm greeted at a home with Univision on the TV set, or trumpets blaring with the um-pah-pah beat of Mexican banda music on a car stereo.

Everyone within earshot is speaking rapid-fire Spanish. As tempting as it is to blurt out, "Gracias!" or to give the bill of sale in unos instead of ones, I speak in plain English.

Make no mistake, I treasure my Hispanic customers - indeed, the entire Hispanic community in the Valley. But I want to make sure they have an incentive to speak English on a daily basis.

In recent years, we have made it far too easy for Latino immigrants to avoid uttering the first word in English. Businesses, eager to cash in on the ever-burgeoning Hispanic market, advertise in Spanish and increasingly employ bilingual workers.

What's more, Latinos have an abundance of Spanish-language media outlets in the Valley. According to the most recent Arbitron numbers, the highest-rated radio station in Phoenix broadcasts entirely in Spanish. Valley radio listeners have no fewer than eight Spanish stations on the FM dial alone.

I'm not advocating that we make life difficult for English-learners.
Mastering a new language demands time, practice and patience. I know, I've been there.

My wife and I lived for several months in Honduras last year, in a town where nobody spoke a lick of English, including the family who hosted us. We didn't have the luxury of attending an English-speaking church, or reading an English-language newspaper, or watching a TV newscast in English.

But after only three months immersed in the language, we acquired enough basic skills to function in a Spanish-speaking world. To go about day-to-day life in Honduras, or most anywhere in Latin America, speaking Spanish is essential. But too many Latino immigrants have made the unfortunate discovery that it's not essential to speak English in the United States.

A century ago, during America's last great immigration rush, newcomers journeyed from many different nations with different languages - Poland, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Russia. Because they lacked a common tongue among them, these new arrivals had a powerful motivation to learn English and adopt an American identity.

These days, an overwhelming majority of immigrants come from a single
region: Mexico and Central America, where almost everyone speaks Spanish.
What this has done is create a large, secondary mainstream culture in the United States - one with its own media, music and language.

As Americans, we have the inescapable need to communicate with one another, and it should be through a single, unifying language. The last thing we need is an official, Quebec-style bilingualism, the kind that has long triggered cultural tensions between French- and English-speaking Canadians.

As for me, I will continue to polish my Spanish because of a personal desire to learn a second language.

So pardon me if I say "Hello" rather than "Hola" to you, my Spanish-speaking pizza patrons. It's because I respect you as fellow Americans and will never assume that you're incapable of speaking our language.

You're a part of our great American family. Our diverse and united family.

The writer lives in Glendale. He is a former KPHO-TV reporter who is now a freelance writer and pizza deliverer.