When I was growing up, my grandmother was partial to conspiracy theories and skeptical of things like, oh, say, science or history that challenged her beliefs. I remember the day she caught wind of a movement to make Spanish the official national language of the United States. She immediately flew into a tizzy, outraged at the mere thought of such an abomination. Being a devoted granddaughter with little experience under my belt, I joined her tizzy and declared the plan preposterous.
That particular movement was short-lived, and obviously unsuccessful, and I quickly forgot about it.
In high school, many of my friends were involved in foreign language classes and clubs. I decided to try on French for love of its flow, the sound of which conjures romantic scenes of cafes, pretty girls, men wearing berets, striped shirts and red ascots. But as I struggled to find the logic in French pronunciation and boggled at the spelling of words such as s’il vous plaît and hors d’oeuvres (both of which I had to look up for this column) I determined it was too hard to be fun, and thus not worth my effort. I committed to memory the phrase, “Je ne parle pas français.”
I moved on to Spanish, which I quickly found to be logical, predictable and relatively easy to learn. Words are spelled like they sound, pronounced how they look and conjugated like one would expect (once the rules have been learned.)
For reasons involving some muddy logic (influenced heavily by convenience) and the desire to earn a degree with a marketable skill, I went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Spanish.
I learned many things in my courses, the first of which being that you can graduate with a degree in Spanish without being able to understand native Spanish-speakers as their words bubble rapidly from their mouths.
But my education was much more rounded than that. We learned of corrupt governments backed by our own government in the name of democracy and business, of vibrant cultures entrenched in a passionate intertwining of merged religions, of magical realism found in their literature.
Although I find the spoken language challenging to understand (I needed more practice), we learned about its structure in depth. We learned how to dissect sentences, understanding structures of language — tenses I’d always used, but never knew existed. I learned that verbs have moods. I learned that English has counterparts to these things, but we learn it by feel — not by the books. By learning Spanish, I learned much more about English than I ever would have.
I didn’t think much more about the proposition of Spanish becoming the national language until I watched my own kids’ homework come home. Week after week, they study spelling, memorizing long lists of words with rules that defy logic — and in fact, rules that shamelessly defy one another. I see them struggle as they write to utilize vocabulary that far outshines their spelling abilities. And I wonder what Spanish-speaking children learn. A language with spelling as simple to learn as the alphabet itself must provide opportunity for more learning — more vocabulary — and less struggle to memorize. More opportunity to create.
No, I won’t start a movement to shift the United States to a Spanish-speaking country. I’m not crazy. But I will allow myself to imagine it. It might have been nice.
Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes alternate weeks.