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Culture — The Truth about Latinos Learning English

by Jake Beus

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March 19th, 2010

This week’s topic on Spanish Culture can be a sensitive issue for many people in the U.S. There are people that have very strong feelings on both sides of the issue. I am going to touch on this topic and share insights from my own perspective.

As I have mentioned in previous newsletters, I lived in Latin America for two years. Here in the U.S. I have also worked extensively with many Latino people. I have provided business training seminars for them, become friends with them, and my business has taught hundreds of Latinos to speak English.

There is an overwhelming sentiment in the U.S. that when Latino people come here to the U.S. they ought to learn English—end of discussion. People argue that when many of our European ancestors came to the U.S., they had to learn English and so should the Latino people.

I agree with this to a point, and I believe that most Latino people in the U.S. also agree and truly want to learn English. The challenge is, while some Latino people that come to the U.S. are professionals, many of them have had only a few years of elementary school; as a result it is very difficult for them to learn English. I saw this over and over again first hand as my company taught them English. Some of them wanted to learn English desperately, but it just didn’t seem to stick.

One of the challenges is that many Latino people move to sectors of cities where there are Mexican restaurants and stores and many other Latino people. They feel comfortable only speaking Spanish. This fact frustrates a lot of Americans who think everyone should know English, and they themselves don’t want to expend any effort to learn Spanish.

Now here’s the other side of the story; the part that most people don’t realize. When Latino families come to the U.S. a high percentage of them want their children to learn English to such a degree that they only permit their children to speak English in the home so they won’t have the “stereotyped stigma” of knowing Spanish. The sad part is that many second-generation Latinos here in the U.S. don’t speak Spanish because their parents made them speak English in the home. If they would have learned both languages fluently, they would have been that much farther ahead in life. Of course there are exceptions to this and some become truly bilingual, actually translating and interpreting for their parents. However, I have personally known hundreds of Latinos where this is the case—they became fluent only in English as they grow up and lose any Spanish skills they had.

Many of us have one point of view on certain issues; we think that people should learn our language and we shouldn’t have to learn theirs since we are perfectly fine just knowing English. I believe the fact that someone knows two languages should inspire respect for their achievement instead of thinking of them as “not as smart” because they have a foreign accent.

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