Why it's good to speak Spanish in America

Trump: 'This is a country where we speak English'
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Story highlights

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Some conservatives at CNN debate made clear they think those who don't mainly speak English don't belong in U.S.
  • It's sensible to speak language of country where you live, but deriding multilingualism is shortsighted, out of touch with world, she says

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. She writes on war, including war and cinema. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Follow her on Twitter @ruthbenghiat.

(CNN)Should people living in America speak English? Should they be derided, viewed with suspicion, or even asked to leave, if they primarily speak a different language? Judging by the CNN debate on Wednesday night, Republican and conservative leaders think the answer to both these questions is yes.

It's hard to argue against that answer to the first question: It's clearly better for immigrants to speak the language of their adopted country. They will be more competitive for jobs and feel more connected to society. But the shortsightedness implied by the second question is troubling: a population that speaks several languages is helpful, not harmful, to America's economy and national security.
    Ruth Ben-Ghiat
    The conversation among conservatives about undocumented immigrants and what they perceive as a threat to American identity has indeed been ongoing. These days, it's tied to a virulent, anti-immigrant sentiment -- focused on "brown people"-- and apparently aimed at using "the other" to galvanize the base, especially during the campaign.
    In this context, language is an easy target; it's the way foreign origins are most obviously expressed. We hear an accent, or English that's difficult to understand, and tag the speaker as an outsider, someone whose allegiances might not be clear.
    This is why Donald Trump criticized fellow presidential candidate Jeb Bush for answering questions on the campaign trail posed to him in Spanish in that same language; Trump turned what some might consider an admirable and politically useful skill into a mark of snobbery or out-of-touchness with "real" America.
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    And it's why some viewers took Vanessa Ruiz, a Hispanic news anchor in a heavily Hispanic state (Arizona), to task -- not for mangling Spanish-language words, but for pronouncing them correctly -- i.e. in a manner "Americans" could not understand.
    Our nation of immigrants has plenty of words borrowed from other languages -- did you eat a taco today, or maybe have a latte? -- but our ethos of assimilation means even those words have to sound "right" to us, which often means they in fact sound wrong.
    Taking things one step further, Trump ally Sarah Palin asserted recently that people who don't want to "speak American" in America have no business living here. And at Wednesday's earlier, second-tier CNN debate, Sen. Lindsay Graham said immigrants must "learn our language" to be allowed to stay in the country.
    This blunt instrument line of reasoning is against our country's long-term interests. We need more, not fewer, multilingual people to settle in America -- and keep their native languages along with English -- if we want to be competitive in a globalized economy.
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    Yes, English is the world's lingua franca now, especially for business, diplomacy, and technology (which has greatly helped our nation's businesses to outsource to places like India), but mastering a foreign language has many layers of usefulness: it opens a window into how other people think and what they value, including how they feel about money (seen often through idioms). This is important knowledge for doing business with foreign entities.
    Speaking multiple languages -- yes, Spanish among them -- simply creates more opportunities, more influence and potentially more profit as well.
    It is surprising that Donald Trump has made linguistic ignorance one of his proud calling cards, given how heavily his businesses invest abroad, and how many foreign investors have a stake in his American-based enterprises.
    The case for multilingualism can also be made for national security, an area Republicans deeply care about. Beyond the obvious benefits in espionage and other kinds of intelligence work, having new Americans who are able to keep their native languages -- Arabic, for example -- and not let them lapse, opens up the possibility of having a deep pool of interpreters for our involvements abroad.
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    If they are lucky, countries have nationals in service with fluency in the right languages, but it's common for armed services to have to utilize local people, indeed raising issues of trust as well as cost and logistics. This is one reason modern empires welcomed multilingualism and in fact invested in language schools for their personnel on the ground.
    A multilingual America can only help the United States military, now that many operations abroad make heavy use of counterinsurgency warfare, with its higher and more diversified contact with the local population. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States had to depend heavily on local interpreters, and we are still involved in managing the difficult aftereffects of that engagement: interpreters our country hired and then left behind, and who are now subject to retaliation.
    According to a 2009 report by the United Nations High Committee on Refugees, cited by Ben Anderson in his Vice News report "The Interpreters", one interpreter was being killed every 36 hours. Although the U.S State Department subsequently implemented a special immigrant visa program for Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters, the creation of this class of refugees is a testament to the power of language politics, and an example of the fallout from American insufficiencies in this area.
    Isolationist tendencies have a long history in America, and desires like those professed by Palin, Graham, and Trump to hear only English around them come under this category. There is little question that people living in America should know how to speak English. But that is only part of a larger reality.
    The world has changed. The ongoing refugee crisis and its extension into the heart of Europe shows that you cannot just shut out what you don't want to see and hear. It's not in our economic or national security interest to build walls around us, even of the linguistic kind.