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A human barrier

How learning a second language can combat racism

  • 3 min to read
Bilingualism

Bilingualism: “[T]he fact of being able to speak two languages equally well” (Cambridge Dictionary). 

Language allows people to connect and learn from one another, yet the majority of United States citizens are monolingual. As xenophobia builds and targets Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, it is important that we use language as a way to combat racial tension in the U.S. 

President Donald Trump has entertained the idea of building a wall on the Mexican-American border since the beginning of his campaign in June of 2015. But the only wall that has been built since his proposal is one between human beings. 

By making more of an effort to embrace the Spanish language as a country, we can begin to cultivate understanding rather than marginalization and division. 

Alienated at home

Resentment toward the Mexican-American population has been escalating ever since Trump was elected to office. 

Tina Vasquez, an editor and award-winning independent journalist, wrote an article for The Guardian addressing the racism she has experienced since the election. 

“As a light-skinned, biracial Latina in one of the most diverse and Mexican-centric cities in the nation (Los Angeles), I have never been asked the type of questions I’m now fielding from white people.”

Vasquez reflected on times when she was asked if she was “illegal” and if she “could speak English.” 

These assumptions of Vasquez’s documentation and language ability are forms of alienation and the alienation of many Mexican-Americans like her. 

A wall of racism 

Since his election, Trump has been fueling racism toward Mexicans by continuing to spout the notion that Mexico is only filled with “bad hombres,” as Trump stated in the final presidential debate. 

Pablo Piccato, a professor of history at Columbia University stated in his article for Quartz that “Mexico’s violent reputation — at least in the U.S. — became a powerful stereotype by the mid-20th century.” After the Civil War, “gunmen that came to be known as pistoleros” were born. 

The violent reputation of the pistoleros, along with gang activity and drug trafficking, has spoiled Mexico’s overall reputation. 

Consequently, Trump has been known to frame the people of Mexico as “criminals, drug dealers, (and) rapists,” as reported by CNN.

Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX 16th District) called Trump out on his racist antics. O’Rourke spoke at the Texas capitol in January of 2017,  publicly stating that “when you begin with the premise that Mexico is sending rapists and criminal to the U.S. and you meet that with a wall, that wall in itself is a racist reaction to a racist myth that does not reflect the reality of this country at all.” 

Trump’s comments that paint Mexican immigrants as criminals are only further dividing U.S. citizens. This is where language comes in. 

As FluentU, an online foreign language emersion site, points out, “Speaking another language lets you interact with different people and understand the nuances of another culture.” 

By speaking Spanish, Americans can begin to see Mexicans as people rather than the threat that Trump is convinced they are. 

America needs to catch on 

A study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that, in 2007, 56 percent of the European Union was bilingual, whereas in the same year 19.73 percent of Americans “spoke another language other than English at home.” 

Gaia Vince, a writer for BBC, wrote an article about a time she overheard a conversation between two South Africans. 

They explained to her that “[i]n Johannesburg, where they are from, most people speak at least five languages.” According to the Central Intelligence Agency, South Africa alone has 11 official languages. America is the minority in our level of language diversity and ability to converse with those who do not speak English. 

America has a double standard: We expect outsiders to know our language, yet we do not make an effort to learn theirs. 

The Modern Language Association recorded foreign language enrollment in higher education. The enrollment in Spanish decreased by 8.2 percent from 2009 to 2013, and there was a 6.7 percent total decrease in enrollment in foreign languages. 

With a decline in the effort to learn languages other than English, America is sending the message that all other cultures must submit to American culture in order to be part of the Western community.

The benefits of speaking more than one language 

Learning a foreign language allows us to get to know and understand other people and their culture, but it can also have benefits that extend into health and job opportunities. 

Six researchers of neurology and psychology conducted a study in association with the  Department of Experimental Psychology that found that “bilingualism delays onset of Alzheimer’s disease” by up to four years. Examined Existence, a site that conducts studies on health, reports that bilingualism can also help improve memory. 

Being bilingual can also better one’s chances of being hired and increase salary. In a study conducted by the University of Florida, researchers found that, in Miami, “fully bilingual Hispanics earn nearly $7,000 per year more than their English-only counterparts.”

Speaking a foreign language is both beneficial to one’s personal life and to the wellbeing of the American community as a whole. Breaking language barriers is necessary for this country to remain open-minded and welcoming.  

It is our duty as Americans to combat the turmoil that Trump is bringing to this country, and we can do so by putting more time and effort into communicating through languages other than English.