Last February, in an essay called “Spanish Is Different,” which appeared on the American Enterprise‘s website, I took one exception to the English-first idea, an idea with which I am generally sympathetic. In “Spanish Is Different,” I argued that we in the United States should not be surprised to find some 30 to 35 million of our countrymen speaking the other main language of the Western hemisphere, Spanish. And I said we should learn Spanish, too, to welcome this newest and biggest ever group of foreign language immigrants.
The more of us learn and speak Spanish, I argued, the more of them will learn English faster and adapt quicker to American ways and English-speaking culture.
I’m doing my part.
While we lived in New Jersey, we ran through a series of babysitters, some good, some not so good, but none that lasted. They were all female. Then one day, on impulse, I asked Raul, one of the busboys at our local coffeeshop, if he’d like to try it. I talked often to Raul, who was an ambitious young man studying computer programming at Union County College. I knew he took whatever work he could get. Initially, dubious, Raul said yes. There started one of the great friendships of our time in New Jersey.
The boys took immediately to their big new friend. Raul could pick them both up at once and wrestle with them. He told them stories about his childhood, partly spent on a jungle plantation in Brazil. He invented games for them to play — one, that quieted our jumpy older son Bud down like a charm, involved writing letters on Bud’s back and having Bud guess what they were. He found himself helping to unknot and soothe the sibling conflict that had reared up when we brought Joe home from Guatemala at age nine months.
By the time Raul’s girlfriend Sandra had come over from Colombia, we had grown to love this young man so much we would have done anything for him. Take over a room in our house? Fine, go ahead. Give him a car? Fine. Knowing a new semester in school was coming up, we offered to pay Raul’s babysitting months in advance so he could cover his tuition — an offer he turned down. I would often, at that time, look back on the hassle that Linda Chavez had had treating an immigrant that same way we were treating Raul, and shake my head in astonishment that people could have doubted the genuineness of the relationship.
Raul and I used to have long talks as I drove him home to Elizabeth: about the economy, about politics, about music (Raul is a jazz buff), about jobs and education and opportunities, about immigration, about race. “I consider myself black,” Raul often said. “My grandfather was black. My grandmother was blonde. But the way some American blacks behave, I want nothing to do with that.” About elections in his country, Colombia, and about terrorists. “You can’t deal with those people. You have to keel them.”
Most often, Raul talked with Sally and me about what he could do to get ahead, to pursue his career in web design and computer graphics. There was no question Raul did a fine job at school. He got promotion after promotion at his scholarship job at the University computer lab, and ended up virtually in charge of his overnight shift. Over and over again, Sally and I would tell him, “Get your English in really good shape. You don’t have to lose your accent entirely, but learn to speak perfect English, and learn to write it, too.” As often as we said that, Raul didn’t quite get how important that was.
People popularly employ the word “devastated” — it’s a staple of the Oprah culture, so much so that I never use it. But it’s the only one here. Raul was devastated when he found out we were moving away. As the day approached for our move, he would shake his head. “It came so fast,” he said over and over. “It came so fast.”
The last time I drove Raul home, I made him a bet, a bet I had talked over with Sally. “I’ll bet you a hundred dollars,” I said to him, “that in one year I can learn to speak perfect, unaccented Spanish. And your part of the bet is to beat me, to learn perfect unaccented English in that same year.”
He thought about it slowly. “Okay, okay,” he said slowly. And we talked about some of the fine points of speaking a foreign language, about the position of the mouth at rest, the tendency to emphasize certain vowels in certain ways.
Raul has taken me seriously, I know. In his e-mails, I can see him working on his English syntax and grammar and vocabulary. Over the last several weeks of the move to Massachusetts, I haven’t had any time at all to study Spanish. But I’m settled in now.
Cuidado, Raul! Yo lo alcanzo ahora!*