A few months ago, I was buying some breakfast muffins at Samad's on the Upper West Side before getting the kids to school. I had all three of them with me and we were trying to decide what kind of muffins to get. All of a sudden, a very angry woman said to me, "You are in America! Speak English!" The kids wanted me to repeat to them what this woman had said. I told them we would talk about it later. I was still in shock-- not used to this happening so early in the morning! The only comeback I had was "I am going to write about you!" When I tell this story to my friends, they are also shocked and in disbelief. In order to make sense of this comment, some people even suggested that this woman might be "crazy!"
I gave my children a different explanation. I explained that some people might feel left out when not understood, but that we had the right to use the language we use everyday at home. If we had been talking with her, we would have translated. We talked about what the woman said, how it made us feel and the power of words. They had many questions and I didn't have too many answers.
The sad thing is that people's biases, prejudices and stereotypes exist at all levels in all places of the world. The worst part is that these ideas are also found at the decision making levels- people who make and pass the laws also have these prejudices and they make laws unfair and unjust. See for example all the recent laws against immigrants in Arizona and Alabama.
Here is a YouTube video of a Senator making similar remarks of "disgust" at a person who is speaking at Congressional Hearing via translator. The message gets lost because the emphasis is on the language that is being used:
So what are our American rights? Why is speaking in different languages so threatening? If I choose to speak to my children in Spanish, how does it impact the lady at Samad's? Maybe we should view language learning as a fact of life and a never ending process that adds to one's quality of life, rather than hurting it.
The man in this video does speak in English, but he must be allowed to use his native language to express complex issues. I wonder what the Senator would have said if this man would have spoken in English? Maybe then the concern would have been his accent!