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Embracing Foreign Languages

Rob and daughter Sarah atop the Leaning Tower, Pisa, Italy

Rob and daughter Sarah atop the Leaning Tower, Pisa, Italy

Republican Congressman Mike Coffman and his Democratic opponent Andrew Romanoff held a public debate yesterday—all in Spanish. It was billed as the first non-English candidate debate in Colorado state history.

Well, maybe not. Hispanics settled Colorado long before Anglos did. When I was practicing law in Denver in the 1970s and 1980s (before embarking on my academic career), I had Hispanic clients who traced their family’s Colorado residence back to the 1700s. So I suspect there were Spanish-language political debates within Colorado well before there were English-language ones.

People concerned about large non-English speaking populations in the United States needn’t worry. We have had them before, all through our history. Much of the debate over the U.S. Constitution in Pennsylvania in 1787 and 1788 was held in German: Speakers of that language made up perhaps 40% of the state population. Dutch was still widely spoken in New York.

During the 20th century, politicians such as New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia campaigned in Italian and Yiddish as well as English because large parts of the city’s population used Italian and Yiddish in daily life. Yet today most of the descendants of those Italian speakers know little, if any, of their ancestral tongue. The descendants of the Yiddish speakers know words like “shlemiel” and maybe a few vulgarities, but that’s about it. I’m shocked at how many second generation Mexican-Americans can speak hardly any Spanish and how many second generation Chinese- and Japanese-Americans know hardly any of their parents’ language.

Don’t get me wrong. In my view, it is imperative that Americans know English, and I think competency in English should be a requirement for citizenship. But I also think it is a mistake for immigrants not to pass on their native tongues to their children. Spanish speakers should teach their kids Spanish; speakers of Indian tribal languages should pass their own languages on to the rising generation. I have long regretted that my father, who although a native of this country was raised in a Yiddish-speaking household, did not teach me that language when I was at an age when I could have easily absorbed it. He could done this by speaking to me exclusively in Yiddish. I could have learned English quite well from my Nova Scotia-born mother and from the larger culture.

Knowing a second language not only enriches one’s knowledge base; it is also a window into another way of seeing the world, into a different way of thinking. The more a foreign language diverges from English, the more different its perspective. The bilingual person enjoys the kind of additional depth provided by seeing through two eyes instead of one, or in color rather than in black and white.

Moreover, there is good evidence that when one studies foreign languages in addition to English, it improves one’s knowledge of English beyond any advantage from devoting those extra hours solely to English. This is particularly true of Latin.

In my view, any American with any pretensions to a college-level education should be fluent in English, but also (1) know the rudiments of Latin (both for its linguistic and cultural benefits) and (2) be conversant in at least one modern language.

I walked the walk when raising my own daughters: I taught all three basic spoken Latin from childhood. The youngest, Sarah, and the eldest, Rebecca, went on to study Latin literature in school. Sarah is reasonably conversant in Spanish, and now has branched out into Hebrew and Greek. Rebecca, now a Latin teacher, also speaks Japanese, as does her husband (although he is not of Asian ancestry). Deborah, my “central” daughter, not only imbibed Latin in childhood, but has studied German and a smattering of Italian and Russian.

I should add that my brother has given his own children the same sort of advantage. He is fluent in Italian, and speaks to his son and daughter only in that language. His son recently entered college, where he is majoring in business, but supplementing it with Italian.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should have that level of linguistic interest. I am arguing only that in addition to insisting that Americans all know English, we should embrace the variety and the insights offered by many other languages.

Rob Natelson