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¿Español? Debe aprender—Comprendes?

Published: January 24, 2013
Section: Opinions


Waiting to go home for winter break, I was sitting at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, reading quietly before waiting to board. As I waited, a dark-skinned, Hispanic woman sat down next to me with an apprehensive look on her face. She turned to me and spoke softly, “I don’t speak very much English. I need help with my flight.”

I thought of this as my golden opportunity to practice my Spanish outside of the classroom, and so I asked, “Habla español?” which translates to, “Do you speak Spanish?”

She immediately seemed relieved and started to explain to me that she did not understand what time her flight was leaving and what time she needed to board. I told her that she didn’t have to worry—our flight was delayed only about 20 minutes, and I would tell her exactly when she needed to get in line to board.

My new friend, Priscilla, was incredibly grateful for my answers to her simple questions. As we continued to talk before boarding the plane, I learned that Priscilla was 27 years old and from the Dominican Republic (DR). She told me stories about growing up there and about her dream to move to the United States with her husband. In exchange, she asked me questions about school, friends and family. After the flight, I helped Priscilla find her luggage at baggage claim. When I said goodbye to her, she said that she was so grateful and gave me a big hug and a kiss.

I have been thinking about Priscilla a lot. She had informed me that it was her first time in the United States, and after spending a few days in New York City, I was one of the very few individuals who had offered to use Spanish to help her in any way. This enraged me.

Hispanics have gradually become the United States’ largest ethnic minority. In July 2011, the United States Census Bureau reported that 52 million people made up the Hispanic population of the United States, accounting for approximately one in every six Americans.

It would seem inevitable that with a growing number of Hispanic people living in the United States, the majority of United States’ citizens could speak, at the very least, some Spanish, right? Wrong.You may be surprised to learn that only about 12 percent of U.S. residents speak Spanish, a percentage that represents Spanish-speaking people of all levels of fluency, even beginners.

This number is in dire need of improvement. Why? The Census Bureau predicts that by 2050, more than 30 percent of the nation will be Hispanic, a number that comes out to be approximately 132.8 million. If only 12 percent of our population can speak Spanish now, but more than 30 percent of our nation will consist of Hispanics, what does that say about our nation? How can we honestly call ourselves “global citizens” if only a small number of us can communicate with the largest minority in the country?

But there are so many other reasons why we, not only as young adults at Brandeis but as students living in the United States, should learn Spanish.

Want to travel to another country? According to Ethnologue, Spanish is the second-most commonly spoken language in the world. If you know at least a little bit of Spanish, you will have a higher chance of meeting someone in another country who also speaks Spanish and can help you navigate your way around.

Want to get a job? In private markets, understanding Spanish is often a deal-breaker, and it is a skill that will determine whether or not you or the person next to you will get the job.

Some writers suggest that understanding Spanish is especially valued in the public sector, for being able to speak fluently on the phone with customers who only speak Spanish is highly useful. The need for more Spanish-speakers in the workplace will only continue to grow.

Want to join the international business community, the public sector or any other sphere in the global future? You should learn Spanish.

And for my fellow U.S. residents, simple advice: Hispanic America is here to stay. The Spanish language boom is not going away. Es el momento para aprender español.