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If Spanish makes you nervous — why not learn some?

May 16, 2019 GMT

In New Mexico, picking up the sounds of a language other than English is part of daily living. That’s true whether it is Spanish overheard while shopping, two Tewa speakers chatting while picking up burritos or French spoken by visitors walking along the Plaza — we are a multicultural, diverse state and proud of that distinction.

Contrast that reaction to this news from the Pew Research Center, which found that when it comes to languages other than English, there is a distinct partisan divide. Hearing languages that are not English make white Republicans nervous, apparently.

The Pew survey found that 47 percent of white Republicans admit that hearing people speak a language other than English in a public place would bother them “some” or “a lot.” That’s compared to 18 percent of white Democrats who also say they would be bothered.


According to the survey, among all racial groups, whites (34 percent) are the most likely to be bothered hearing foreign languages, followed by blacks (25 percent), Asians (24 percent) and Hispanics (13 percent). Among Americans overall, 70 percent put their level of unease at “not much” or “not at all.” While 70 percent is a wide majority, that number could — and should — be even higher.

Not only is the U.S. a nation of immigrants, where people speak many languages — and learn English along the way — we live in a competitive global economy where having multilingual capabilities makes it easier to find and keep jobs.

This discomfort with the “other” matters as more than an oddity, too. People in our country are being accosted for speaking Spanish. In Montana last year, a U.S. Border Patrol agent detained two U.S. citizens just because he overheard the women speaking Spanish at a gas station. A New York man ranted at Spanish-speaking employees of his local deli, and even threatened to call immigration on them.

Rather than be uncomfortable, we like what the Florida Marlins baseball team is doing — teaching Spanish to members of the organization.

In baseball, many players are foreign-born, often from Spanish-speaking countries. Nearly 30 percent of major league players fall in that category. Until they learn English, they can’t communicate with their team members, fans, coaches or the media. And their English-only teammates can’t speak to them.

To fix that, the Marlins team is sending everyone from players to coaches to administrators to Spanish classes — it’s the brainchild of former Yankees superstar Derek Jeter, chief executive of the Marlins. He told the New York Times that he had watched Spanish-speaking players pick up English, but decided that more needed to be done.


“Communication is a big part of this game, whether it’s pitcher-catcher communications or just teammates communicating,” he told the Times. “So it’s just as important for the English-speaking players to learn Spanish.”

Eventually, he wants everyone in the organization to be comfortable speaking at least some Spanish. That will endear the team to its fans — Miami is the city with the highest-percentage of Spanish speakers of any major metropolitan area in the United States. It also will create friendships, bridge cultural divides and create a team of equals. Best of all, no one needs to feel threatened or ashamed because of what language they speak.