One of my brothers lit off for Japan many years ago, when a friend said a starving artist could support himself there by teaching English. He picked up the lingo, married a Japanese woman and turned his short-term adventure into a long-term residence.
On one of their visits to the family back in the U.S., my brother and his wife were sitting in a corner whispering to one another in Japanese, probably commenting on some goofy American cultural idiosyncrasy.
After a bit of this, my father looked at them over his glasses and said, “You don’t have to whisper. I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
Dad accepted that my brother and his wife were not speaking to him, so what they were saying was none of his concern. It fit his advice that we should not worry about what other people might be thinking or saying about us, because they probably weren’t. It was the buzz of pointless whispering that made it annoying.
In the last few days the inescapable network of pocket video devices has informed us of supposedly intelligent and responsible Americans who were upset to note that people in their hearing were speaking — not whispering — Spanish to one another.
A lawyer in New York City went verbally ballistic at a couple of restaurant workers speaking Spanish to each other. He assumed out loud that they were living off of his taxes and/or illegal immigrants and threatened to turn them over to immigration agents.
After being shamed on social media and The New York Post, the lawyer got kicked out of his office and has been stalked on the city’s streets by mariachi bands.
Then a U.S. Border Patrol agent on the Canadian frontier — and thus probably bored to distraction — questioned a couple of folks he encountered in a gas station because they were speaking Spanish.
Of course people wanting to get ahead in the United States should have at least a passable grasp of English. It is the lingua franca that allows folks to interact in the workplace, government or anywhere.
But that doesn’t mean people can’t also speak Spanish, Polish, Zulu or Klingon in private conversations, even in public places, if that’s their choice. Some of us actually think it’s pretty cool.
The data dudes at The Washington Post have tapped Census records to determine that bilingualism, people who speak English at school or work and something else at home or in the car — or in a gas station or restaurant — has reached an all-time high.
If you don’t understand what they are saying, tough.
They weren’t talking to you.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Tribune, is talking to you right now. firstname.lastname@example.org