A Language That Goes Beyond Words

by Kevin Burton

   Surely you’ve heard this old joke:

   What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks only one language?

   American. 

   A wicked, sweeping generalization that. Not entirely fair. But it’s funny because it has its basis in the truth. 

   I used to be one of those arrogant Americans who thought the world should learn my language, not the other way around. Don’t know how much things have changed since the 70s, but because we have so many naturalized Americans now, more languages are spoken here than ever before. 

   I was told at one point that information for parents in the Wichita School District was sent home in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. 

   Well I don’t have children but I do eat crackers and have noticed that the Premium box label announces not just “saltine crackers” but also “galletas de sal.”

   There is of course, scientific information about language that goes beyond my crackerbox analysis. 

   “The number of people in the United States who spoke a language other than English at home nearly tripled from 23.1 million (about 1 in 10) in 1980 to 67.8 million (almost 1 in 5) in 2019, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report,” reads a release from the Census Bureau.

   “At the same time, the number of people who spoke only English also increased, growing by approximately one-fourth from 187.2 million in 1980 to 241 million in 2019).”

   What languages are commonly spoken here and who is speaking them? 

   “Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Arabic speakers were more likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens than not U.S. citizens. Spanish speakers were less likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens (18 percent) than not U.S. citizens (28 percent),” The Census Bureau said.

   Tagalog is the language spoken in the Philippines. 

   This is all very interesting and of course you can crunch Census Bureau data all day. They don’t necessarily track all the data that I need to satisfy my curiosity however.

   For example, what percentage of households have at least one resident who understand the soap operas on Univision? 

   My household is covered here.  Yes, I speak some Spanish, but I’m not the helpful one here. It is my wife Jeannette who truly understands what is going on.  She reads the facial expressions of the actors, hears the dramatic music and offers up the verbal equivalent of English subtitles.

   Univision is one click away from NFL football on CBS on the cable package we have.  If I land there on an NFL commercial break, Jeannette offers the translation.

   The first time I did this, she immediately sprang into translation action, without any prompting from me.

   “Your words are empty. I am tired of your lies,” Jeannette translates as the Spanish syllables spill forth from the TV, “I’m not a child, not your play thing!”

   When I can stop laughing long enough to listen and catch what I can of the Spanish, I note that her translation is spot on with what the actors are saying.  It’s uncanny.

    During our courtship I never knew Jeannette had this talent.  It took marriage and a timeout on the NFL field, to bring this to my attention.

   The Census Bureau also does not track, the percentage of residents who can understand the music blasted by and the words spoken by their taxi/Lyft/Uber drivers.

   My household is not covered by this.  I have tried. I’m fairly good with language. I listen for cognates, or words that are similar enough to the English equivalent to give me a clue as to what is being said.  But I rarely get anything at all that I recognize.

    Mostly though, the foreign language you will encounter in the US is Spanish.  And it’s getting to the point where it’s not really foreign anymore. Spanish is a part of what we are doing and who we are. 

   “The Hispanic population is the largest minority group in the United States. So it is not surprising Spanish was the most common non-English language spoken in U.S. homes (62 percent) in 2019 – 12 times greater than the next four most common languages,” wrote the Census Bureau. 

   My Spanish classes in college, my time living in Mexico teaching English, they help for sure. But my wife seems to be ahead of me, speaking the language of real life, real soap opera life anyway.  She clues me in on what’s really going on.

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