So, I was sitting in the cafe´ enjoying a cup of old fashioned coffee and a piece of homemade apple pie. We still do that here in the heartland. The young couple sitting in the booth behind me was carrying on an animated conversation, in Spanish. They seemed to be having a great time; they certainly had a lot to say; and, it all sounded as if it were probably very interesting. Not for the first time, I found myself wishing I knew Spanish or conversely that they knew English. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to eavesdrop but they were two feet away and I couldn’t understand a word. For all I knew they were planning anything from a double date with friends to kidnapping the Taco Bell Chihuahua.
Patty, the waitress, came over to ask if they wanted anything else before delivering their check, and suddenly the young man in the booth was speaking clear and quite understandable English.
Huh, I thought, maybe they were speaking Spanish because the girl doesn’t speak English. But then, I heard her say something to Patty in plain and clear English. They conversed momentarily and after Patty left the two slipped easily back into Spanish.
I couldn’t help being impressed. These two were very young, and as our town is not at the height of cosmopolitan style it was impressive that they should be fluent in two languages at this age. My curiosity got the better of me and I turned and struck up a conversation.
They were polite and respectful, even to the point of calling me sir which seldom happens these days. They became obviously uneasy when I asked where they were from so I didn’t push it. We chatted for a bit, and I complimented them on their English and asked where they had learned to speak the langauge so well. The young man, Joe was his name, shrugged and told me they had learned here, in the school.
It turns out that our public school offers English language classes to those students for whom English is not their native tongue. I also learned that our community offers, free of charge, a similar class for non-English speaking adults. Rosa, the young lady, told me her mother attends the class at the local library. I thought this very interesting; I wished them a nice day and went back to my pie and coffee.
As I was leaving the cafe´ I was thinking about these classes and wondering why I hadn’t heard about them before. I was headed for my truck when the question popped into my head like a single kernel of popcorn.
I cut across the square and climbed the steps to the library. As I approached the counter the pimply faced kid imitating a librarian looked up from his computer screen.
“Hi,” I said, “I’d like to sign up for the next Spanish class.”
“Excuse me,” he said, looking more than a little confused.
“Yeah, I just heard ya’ll have free language classes over here and I’d like to learn Spanish. So, sign me up.”
“We don’t.. have a Spanish class,” he said.
“Huh. Well, that’s okay. What other languages do you have? As long as it’s free I might as well learn one. I’ll just take whatever you got.”
“We don’t… I don’t know… Umm…”
“Well, what language classes do you have?”
“The only language class we have is the English one,” he managed to stammer while looking around for somewhere else he had to be.
“Huh,” I said on my way out the door.
On the drive back to work I pondered this for a while and finally just had to chuckle at the irony of it. People come to this Country unable to speak the language and in order for them to better assimilate into society our tax dollars are used to provide classes for them. The net result is that they become bilingual while we remain mono-ignorant. Is this a great Country or what?
Here’s my idea. Let’s use our tax dollars to provide classes to Americans so that we may learn the languages of the immigrants. Because we will be better able to communicate and explain the ways of American society they will more easily assimilate through direct and daily interaction. And, if they do not wish to assimilate we will be better able to understand that when they’re sitting behind us in a booth talking in a language they think we don’t understand.