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Gallegos: Better get used to living in a bilingual America

First Published May 14 2014 10:55 am • Last Updated May 14 2014 10:55 am

Americans should learn Spanish. That’s the advice Uruguayan President Jose Mujica gave President Barack Obama this week during his first visit to the Oval Office. As Mujica put it: "You will have to become a bilingual country yes, or yes."

It’s probably more than a little self-serving for Mujica — a native Spanish speaker who can’t speak English — to say this. But it also has the virtue of being true. It is no secret that most Americans can speak only English. In an age of increasing globalization, such monolingualism can be a patent disadvantage.

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There’s no need to take offense. English is after all the de facto official language of the United States, and it should rightly remain so. English is deeply ingrained in the country, even if America has become a cultural melting pot. Prizing diversity doesn’t mean the U.S. should give up its history and traditions, certainly not its language.

The beauty and creativity of English is beyond debate. You need only appreciate William Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter or William Faulkner’s prose to understand its richness. Plus, as U.S. society continues to innovate, English creates new words every year. In contrast, the Real Academia Española, the body that oversees Spanish, tends to borrow words liberally from English. Last year, it adopted "tuit" to mean "tweet."

But Americans would gain from also speaking Spanish because of demographics. Spanish is not only the most widely used language in the U.S. after English, but also a growing one. The number of Spanish speakers has increased 233 percent since 1980, according to the Pew Research Center. The Census Bureau reckons Spanish speakers will grow to between 39 million and 43 million by 2020. As of 2012, there were already 38 million Spanish speakers in the U.S.

True, new generations of Latinos gradually lose their Spanish-speaking skills. But their declining use of Spanish is a slow process, and most Latino adults still think it’s important to speak Spanish as well as English. Like it or not, new Spanish-speaking immigrants (undocumented and otherwise) will continue to make it to the U.S. seeking jobs.

It is wishful thinking to assume that Spanish will fade the way German, Italian or Polish did years after immigrants from those nations touched U.S. shores. The U.S. doesn’t share a border with any of those countries as it does with Mexico, a Spanish-speaking nation and the gateway to a whole continent of Spanish speakers.

The idea that Spanish is the language of "living in a ghetto," as Newt Gingrich once suggested, is not only racist but also foolishly shortsighted. Latinos are an increasingly affluent demographic with purchasing power set to reach $1.5 trillion next year. Competence in Spanish is an indispensable tool for businesses looking to engage with this growing segment of Americans.

Having Spanish speakers in the U.S. who can’t speak English is a problem. But Spanish and English are not mutually exclusive language skills. Disclosure: I owe part of my career to the good fortune of being bilingual.

English is the international language of business and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. But Spanish is becoming a crucial second language to have in the U.S. Those who fail to acknowledge this do so at their own peril, and at the expense of their future.

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