Most of the time, I agree with Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. But I think his recent column Primero Hay Que Aprender Español. Ranhou Zai Xue Zhongwen. (First learn Spanish. Then study Chinese) misses the mark hugely. His proclaiming that “Every child in the United States should learn Spanish” gets people’s hackles up, and anything that comes after a statement like that isn’t going to be taken well, even if the reasons for recommending Spanish as a second language are good ones.
I chose to study Spanish in high school. For me, ultimately, it has turned out not to be the best choice for a second language, either personally or professional. I work internationally, and I know now that French would have served me far, far better. But back in the 1980s, my mother kept telling me, “They only speak French in France.” And I was just a small town girl from Kentucky – what did I know? I believed her. When I moved to Germany, I resumed studies in Spanish when found that my employer, the UN, offered free classes in such, forgoing not only French, but German as well (I thought I would be in Germany for only a year or two). And it was only after a couple of years I realized just how much I had handicapped myself by my second language choice, both personally and professionally. Most of my colleagues at the UN in Germany spoke French, most Africans I met (and continue to meet) speak French before English, and most international workers I have worked with outside of Germany speak French as a second language. Had I learned French, I would probably still be living in Europe; I certainly would have a full time job with an international development agency by now.
I ended up living in Germany for eight years, marrying my husband, a German. When a few years later my husband and I traveled throughout Eastern Europe, almost everyone spoke German – it’s by far the most popular second language among anyone working in the tourism industry in most of Europe. Germans seem to be everywhere in the world, and I would have had endless opportunities to speak German over the years outside of Germany — but Spanish, not so much. German would have not only served me well living in Germany, it would have served me well in my travels.
Even Arabic would have been a better second language choice for me than Spanish. Persian Farsi or Dari would have been a better second language choice for me than Spanish.
Spanish has not been a worthless investment at all, and I don’t at all want to imply that I’m saying it’s not a good second language choice for someone in the USA. Knowing Spanish (well, at least a bit) has brought me some benefits: I had a wonderful time in Spanish classes at the UN, as well as my intensive classes in Avila, Spain. My Mexican neighbors here in Oregon seem to appreciate my attempts to communicate. In Romania, on a rare evening when we stayed somewhere that didn’t have anyone that spoke German, I was able to secure a room in a guest house where the owner spoke some Spanish. There was one Afghan-American guy in my office in Kabul who spoke Spanish, and it was fun to say something to him and watch my colleagues stare at us in confusion. My German mother-in-law speaks some Spanish, and it’s fun to speak it with her and leave my husband out of the conversation. And I have many friends from Spain who really appreciate my language skills.
Again, I don’t at all want to imply that I’m saying Spanish is not a good second language choice. I’m sure it’s going to serve me professionally at some point in the future, and that’s why I’m going to continue to cultivate my skills in such. But a lot of factors go into a parent’s selection of their child’s second language, everything from their ethnic or cultural heritage to the neighborhood where they live to their career hopes. Spanish is, indeed, the best choice as a second language for most native English-speaking American children. But it is not automatically the best choice for ALL children.
What’s more important than Kristof’s idea of requiring every American to choose Spanish as a second language: I could totally get behind requiring that every American child both master English and learn a second language, whatever that second language is. Americans are getting their butts kicked in the global marketplace by other countries, where even the working class speaks at least two languages. In the USA, the tragedy isn’t that rich parents are choosing Chinese as their child’s second language; it’s that learning any second language is reserved almost exclusively for only rich school districts and private schools.
And I’ll end with this: my German husband is on a business trip right now. He’s in China.