In America We Speak Every Language


Emely Chairez, Writer/Editor

One of my biggest pet peeves has always been the argument, “In America, we speak English.” 

The argument is anything but flawless, especially considering the fact that the United States doesn’t even have an official language. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over 350 languages spoken in the United States. In order to properly discuss this argument against linguistic racism, I will be breaking it down into three subtopics: bias and prejudice, accents and processing, and the benefits of speaking more than one language. 

Bias and Prejudice

One of the main reasons why we see linguistic racism occur is because of racial bias and prejudice. As a Spanish-speaking Mexican-American, there have been several incidents where I’ve been at the grocery store speaking Spanish with my mom and strangers will stare. I’ve heard countless stories from friends and family about how people have glared or scolded them for speaking in their native language claiming they need to “speak English.” While English can be useful for people to learn if living in the U.S., people should not be criticized for speaking in their native tongue.

I find it to be absolutely ridiculous whenever minorities speak another language it’s seen as “trashy” by certain Americans who have an underlying racial bias. However, when a white person learns another language, it’s often seen as “intelligent” and “classy.” 

One of my uncles told me a story the other day about when his tail light went out. Naturally, when a police officer saw, they pulled him over. When the cop approached my uncle, my uncle was speaking in Spanish to my aunt in the passenger seat. Rather than ask for his license and registration, he made my uncle step out of the car. He then forced him to go to the police station to verify his citizenship. Why did he have to go verify his citizenship? Why wasn’t this just a typical pullover? My uncle felt as though the cop heard him speak another language and immediately made assumptions about my uncle based on his racial bias. My uncle was stereotyped for speaking Spanish. 

According to Pew Research Center, around 40 percent of Latinos experience some form of harassment for speaking Spanish. There have been several instances of Latinos being discriminated against for speaking Spanish. In Montana, two women were stopped at a gas station for an hour by border patrol for speaking Spanish. In May of 2018, a video went viral of a New York lawyer threatening to call ICE on two waiters for speaking Spanish to each other. This shaming surrounded by minorities speaking their native language is based on racial prejudice and bias.

Yet when white people can speak Spanish it’s seen as “cool.” I remember being in French class one day and my white French teacher told the class about how she could speak Spanish, French and English. Everyone was impressed, and rightfully so. Three languages is a lot! Yet, a few weeks ago, my cousin from another school told me that when she was receiving help from her counselor, in her college applications she said she thought it would be a good idea to mention that she was fluent in Spanish. Her counselor told her that it would be best for her to keep that to herself since it wasn’t “proper.” What does that even mean? If something isn’t proper that means it’s inappropriate or wrong. What’s wrong with speaking Spanish? Why is it inappropriate to be proud of speaking Spanish? 

It’s not. 

Speaking Spanish is a gift and asset to anyone who is able to do so. No one should be suppressed or deprived of opportunities simply for speaking another language. 

The suppression of non-English speakers isn’t new. According to WorldAtlas, in the U.S., Indigenous children were forced to go to English boarding schools from 1860-1978 where they were banned from speaking their native languages. They were often physically abused for speaking their languages. Enslaved Americans were also banned from speaking their native languages. Both groups were also harshly punished for speaking in them. They were often beaten or whipped for being caught speaking their native language. 

Accents and Processing

People who speak English as their second language can often have accents. They also must translate their thoughts from their native language to English. Their proficiency in their native language is higher than in English so they must often simplify their sentences causing them to slightly change the meaning of their sentences. People with accents while speaking English might have to ask more questions or it might take them a second to understand what someone said, but this does not mean they are less intelligent. Speaking English with an accent is often seen as a sign of lower intelligence when in reality it should show that someone is intelligent if they are able to speak more than one language. 

My dad is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He can speak English perfectly and when you hear him speak Spanish, he sounds incredibly intelligent. My father has an accent when he speaks English and when Americans with an underlying racial bias hear him they tend to think that he’s less intelligent and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I remember once we went over to our white neighbors house to introduce ourselves since we had just moved to that area. I noticed that our neighbor spoke to me and my father very differently. I don’t have a Spanish accent when I speak English and our neighbor spoke to me normally. However, when he spoke to my father, he simplified his sentences, spoke slower, and it felt like it was clear he wasn’t expecting my father to fully understand him or be able to comprehend simple sentences. My father and I both felt like he didn’t take my father seriously and viewed my dad as less intelligent than me or himself. English is not the default language and someone’s ability to speak it does not dictate their intelligence. Instead, other languages being spoken in America should be encouraged and seen as an advantage. 

Benefits of Being Bilingual

People with underlying racial biases view speaking another language as wrong and those who speak another language as disadvantaged. Being bilingual can often be viewed as a negative thing when in reality, speaking more than one language can have many advantages. Being bilingual has helped me significantly throughout school and it has opened so many different opportunities for me. Speaking Spanish has been a huge advantage as I’ve been learning French and has always been helpful in all of my English classes as well. Because I am bilingual, the way that I process words and form thoughts is different from those who only speak one language. This makes it easier for me to express my thoughts when writing English papers and analyze things differently. Being bilingual has also allowed me to be eligible for several more scholarships. Several job opportunities will also be available to me as I grow older. According to the Financial Post, bilingual speakers can be paid between 5-20 percent more than people who only speak one language. They can also be offered more positions than monolingual workers. According to research done by the Dana Foundation, people who speak multiple languages have also been found to have better focus, better cognitive function as they get older, and are better at processing information.

Regardless of which language you speak in America or if you speak it with an accent you should not be shamed for it. Speaking another language is not a weakness, it’s a strength that should be encouraged, not shamed. 

Linguistic racism is more than just a simple pet peeve. It’s an issue deeply rooted in bias and prejudice that can be very harmful to non-native English speakers. It is unrealistic to expect everyone in a country as diverse as America to speak English, and only English, perfectly. People from every corner of the world come to visit and live here, all speaking different languages. They should be able to walk around freely and express themselves in whichever language they please without being deprived of opportunities, stereotyped, or seen as less intelligent because in America, we speak every language.