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A bilingual message for Ms. Xenophobe

SO MUCH FOR Santa Monica being ground zero for tolerance and progressivism.

Recently at a Whole Foods Market -- itself supposedly a beacon of touchy-feeliness -- a woman accosted my son Sebastian’s baby-sitter for speaking to him in Spanish.

Sebastian, all of 11 months, was eyeing some fruit being offered for tasting, so Ursula asked him, “Quieres probar?” That’s when this perfect stranger -- let’s call her Ms. Xenophobe -- swooped in to impart her hateful ignorance: “You shouldn’t speak Spanish to that child,” she said, “I am sure that’s not what the parents want.”

She is sure, is she?

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Such breathtaking impudence; if only I had been there to give this woman a piece of my mind.

It isn’t just that the father of this blond child happens to be a blond half-Mexican, or my suspicion that nosy Ms. Xenophobe might not have minded so much if Ursula had been speaking to Sebastian in Swedish or German. What is most disheartening about the incident is how mainstream this woman’s views are about the undesirability of American kids learning a foreign language.

This isn’t a plea for immigrants to go about their business exclusively in their native languages. I am not someone who believes that you can be a full member of the American community without speaking English, which is why I have qualms about open-ended bilingual education.

But if it’s important for immigrants to learn English in order to assimilate into our society, it’s equally important for all Americans -- regardless of their ethnicity -- to be exposed to foreign languages in order to assimilate into the broader world.

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And if people like Ms. Xenophobe think a blond child’s command of English will naturally suffer if he is exposed to a second language, they underestimate the dexterity of a child’s mind and human intelligence.

I WAS RAISED speaking both English and Spanish, and I sound like what I am: a native speaker of both. This is no reflection on my abilities; it’s a matter of when I was exposed to the languages. It wasn’t until I studied French and Russian later on that I realized what a gift it was to have been exposed to two languages at such an early age. Go to a country such as the Netherlands and you encounter an entire population that seems bilingual, if not trilingual. It’s rather humbling.

Such is the disdain for foreign languages in this country, many second-generation Americans feel compelled to drop their ancestral language. When I first came to the U.S. as a student, I was stunned to discover that some of my Mexican American classmates spoke no Spanish. In some cases, presumably because of a defensiveness beaten into them by societal pressures, they seemed to resent my expectation that they would.

Within the United States, only Utah seems to sufficiently appreciate the need to encourage multilingualism among native-born kids, and that has something to do with the Mormon Church’s need for missionaries. Utah starts kids in a second language early and makes them stick with it; many American schools start just about the time that kids lose their ability to effortlessly pick them up.

Still, it’s a good thing that the Los Angeles Unified School District recently moved to stiffen high school foreign language requirements. (Not so good is the politically correct trend at some colleges to consider sign language a foreign language.)

Ms. Xenophobe’s reaction to Ursula speaking to Sebastian in Spanish is almost comical, given his heritage. Instead of being outraged, she should have been particularly pleased to see someone she believed not to be Latino learning Spanish.

The notion that it’s somehow unpatriotic to encourage blond toddlers in Santa Monica to speak a second language is not only narrow minded and provincial, it is itself unpatriotic. The United States, not unlike the Mormon Church, has a strategic need for multilingual citizens. The nation’s need is a matter of economic competitiveness and national security. We understand this as a society in moments of crisis -- after the Soviets launched Sputnik, say, or when Washington realized it had a shortage of Arabic translators in the aftermath of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks -- but we do little about it day in and day out.

My last message to Ms. Xenophobe: If the sound of foreign languages and cultural diversity makes you so twitchy, maybe California is not the place for you.

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And haven’t you noticed your city’s name is in Spanish?


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