In many countries, studying foreign languages in public school systems is not only encouraged—it is mandatory, which is why so many Swedish, German, Norwegian and Dutch high school students have learned to speak English fluently even though it isn’t their native language. But among many right-wing Republicans in the U.S., being monolingual is considered a badge of honor. And in the Trump era, some ugly racial incidents demonstrate that speaking a language other than English in public can be met with verbal abuse.
In May, New York City-based attorney and strong Trump supporter Aaron Schlossberg went into a xenophobic anti-immigrant tirade in a Mid-town Manhattan restaurant, the Fresh Kitchen, when he overheard an employee speaking Spanish with two of the customers. Angrily, Schlossberg ranted, “My guess is they’re not documented; so, my next call is to ICE to have each one of them kicked out of my country. If they have the balls to come here and live off of my money—I pay for their welfare, I pay for their ability to be here—the least they can do is speak English.”
More recently on July 4, a Petaluma, California man named Larry Lappin showed his ignorance when he heard the family of his neighbor, Ivette Celedon—a third-generation U.S. citizen of Mexican descent—enjoying some Latin music in their backyard. Lappin was furious; as he saw it, listening to music that was performed in Spanish on the 4th of July was disrespectful and unpatriotic. And he angrily confronted them, insisting they had no right to “disrespect my fucking country” by listening to Spanish-language music on America’s Independence Day.
Lappin later apologized after a smartphone video of his rant went viral. But he certainly wasn’t the first American xenophobe to feel threatened by the use of Spanish in public, and he won’t be the last. To some racists, using any language other than English in the U.S.—even as a secondary or tertiary language—is akin to burning the flag.
Democrat Barack Obama found out that out during his first presidential campaign in 2008, when Bill Bennett and other knuckle-dragging Republicans were deeply offended because he asserted that foreign-language study should be a much higher priority in American schools. Obama stressed that although immigrants to the U.S. should be able to speak English as well as possible, he believed that Americans would be much better off from an education standpoint if they could achieve fluency in Spanish, French and other languages.
Obama asserted, “I agree that immigrants should learn English. But instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English—they’ll learn English—you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language.”
The president-to-be also asserted, “It’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here. They all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then, we go over to Europe—and all we can say is ‘Merci beaucoup.’”
Nothing Obama said was even remotely offensive. In fact, Obama was spot on: achieving fluency in two or more foreign languages would be great for American students from an educational standpoint just as Dutch students benefit when they’ve achieved fluency in English and German.
But xenophobia runs deep among far-right wingnuts, who see the use of Spanish, Mandarin and other foreign languages in public as a threat to the English language. In 2012’s Republican presidential primary, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ran an attack ad in South Carolina that lambasted Mitt Romney for being proficient in French. According to Gingrich’s ad, Romney’s French-speaking skills meant that he didn’t deserve the GOP’s nomination (which, of course, Romney received anyway before losing to President Obama in the general election).
Fear of foreign languages is one thing that Republicans often have in common with fascist dictators like Italy’s Benito Mussolini in Italy and Spain’s Francisco Franco. In Spain, Franco was bitterly opposed to Spaniards learning any language other than Spanish; speaking Catalan in the streets of Barcelona was illegal under the Franco regime. Mussolini, similarly, wanted Italians to speak Italian exclusively—and this type of hyper-nationalism is alive and well among right-wing Americans like Schlossberg and Lappin who become enraged when they hear a language other than English spoken in public.
Although Trump is married to a Slovenian woman, his supporters love the aggressive hyper-nationalism he has championed. And when Latinos are harassed or abused merely for having private conversations in Spanish in New York City or Petaluma, California, it is a symptom of Trumpism and the type of fearful xenophobia he has helped create.
Ideally, foreign-language study in the U.S. should be mandatory and start as early as kindergarten just as studying English from an early age is mandatory in parts of Europe. Spanish should be a requirement, given the language’s importance—with studying German, French and other languages encouraged as well. There is no reason why, as Obama suggested, American students shouldn’t be able to graduate from high school fluent in two, three or more languages.
The U.S. is in no danger whatsoever of losing its status as a predominantly English-speaking country. But encouraging American students to achieve fluency in Spanish and other foreign languages would certainly benefit them from an educational and employment standpoint—even it does trouble some conservatives quite deeply.