- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2001

"Hola. Que pasa?" Actually, "Yo comprendo Espanol" a bit better than that colloquial salutation. Only "poquito," however.
I hadn't realized how much the Spanish language had crept into my vocabulary until I was in Paris last month for a nerve-racking week at a writer's workshop. I'm probably the only person alive who has traveled to picturesque Paris and come back telling horrific stories of feeling so frantically out of place and out of sorts that I couldn't wait to return to the States. Hello, just so I could talk.
I was lost in time, lost in place, lost with currency, but most unsettling of all, I was totally lost in the language.
For someone who lives and dies by words, and who literally makes a living running her mouth incessantly, to be unable to communicate is to experience a living hell. Whoever said "silence is golden" was neither a columnist nor a commentator.
Oddly, every time my quick-study "French for Travelers" tapes and dictionary rendered me hopelessly speechless, I strangely found myself attempting to speak rudimentary Spanish phrases. "Si," "Gracias," "Donde?" were the foreign words that inherently rolled off my tongue to begin my sentences.
How, I wondered, had Spanish become second nature? After all, I studied French in high school and Spanish for only one semester in college. I'm not about to admit how long ago.
In Paris, the best I could muster by week's end was "Pardon moi, je suis Americain, ne parlez Francais; vous parlez Anglais, s'il vous plait?" This pathetic phrase was accompanied by the saddest "Help me" puppy-dog eyes I could muster.
My fledgling French, forged by "Survivor" instincts, reminded me that I didn't experience anywhere near the same disasters trying to make myself understood when I traveled to Cuba last year during the Elian Gonzalez controversy. There, I somehow managed the basics with total strangers — "Donde esta el bano, por favor?"
On reflection, I realized the reason must be how much the Spanish language permeates American culture today. We are living "la vida loca."
Especially in my culturally diverse Alexandria-Arlington-Falls Church community, in which Republican lawmakers have redrawn legislative districts to accommodate the growing Latino populations, sometimes I wonder if I have not been deported to some spicy land.
Not just here. Almost everywhere we conduct business these days, we are asked to choose between English or Spanish. When you call the utility companies, when you use the ATM, when you are waiting in line at the movies or even when you stroll down the grocery aisles, the immediate need for bilingual acumen is becoming more and more apparent.
Last week, when I was trying to resolve a health care issue for my ailing, hospitalized mother, I spoke to three customer-service representatives with Spanish surnames. That we had difficulty communicating, I decided, was as much my problem as theirs.
So, it comes as no surprise to me that the latest reports from the U.S. Census for 2000 indicate that one in five Americans do not speak English at home or that 10.5 million Americans speak little or no English at all. That's 13 percent of Maryland households.
What does comes as a surprise is that we, as a society, have not adjusted to this linguistic reality. We are still in denial about who we are as Americans, given the response to those statistics. Worse, our denial keeps us ignorant.
Why are Americans the only people in the world who truly believe they have to speak only one language, anyway?
The census data — which also indicate that births to the immigrant population accounted for the most U.S. population growth in the past decade — give cause why we need to educate our children and adults to reflect the bilingual shift in our population.
Instead of continuing to spend inadequate sums of money on small, segregated programs such as those the Peace Corps is conducting in Montgomery County for the growing number of students for whom English is not their primary language, every American student ought be required to learn Spanish. No doubt, they ought be learning a little Korean, too.
Funds should be expended to train teachers to teach bilingual classes. And adults ought to hop on the bilingual bandwagon also. I intend to increase my Spanish skills if for no other reason than I'm suspicious enough to want to know what folks are saying around me.
For younger folks, it wouldn't hurt their job marketability to master the language spoken by more people in the free world.
In Paris, I met a precocious 6-year-old, Madelaine, who proudly announced to me that she spoke four languages — French, English, German and Spanish. Her parents were American and German, she lived in France and she was learning Spanish in grade school. Some education.
I have traveled every corner of this Earth and everywhere I go, people can speak English. Trust me, that's the saving grace for people like me who are stupid or arrogant enough to go to a foreign country and expect others to accommodate our needs when, in fact, we demonstrate our blatant disrespect for them by failure to communicate congenialities.
It troubles me greatly that we are not preparing our children with the empowerment and employment tools they will need to forge better futures in a global society.
At the heart of bridging the basic multicultural divide, we must learn to say more than "Hello," "How are you?" and "Goodbye" in another language.
Adios.

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