Every night, Ellen’s bar is filled with the chatter of people speaking foreign languages. There’s some French, some German, but mostly English. Donald Trump would be able to find a lot of people to chat with there, but most locals wouldn’t, because Ellen’s is located in China.
Living in China for the past three years has given me a unique vantage point from which to view the “English-only” debate Trump’s candidacy has raised. Trump has attacked Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail, and at the September 16 CNN debate, Trump said, “We have a country where, to assimilate, you have to speak English.”
I first came to China in 2011 for one semester to study abroad, and our teachers encouraged us to make a Chinese-only promise. We were studying Chinese, after all, so speaking it would be a good way to learn. Most of my classmates, however, spoke English whenever we were together outside of class, so I quickly decided to spend less time with them. I instead hung out with a few serious students and made a lot of local friends. So I understand what Trump means when he thinks it would be best to speak English in the United States of America.
What Language to Speak Is Our Choice
I am one of those deeply integrated expats other expats might consider a snob because I speak Chinese all the time. I don’t know for sure, because I never meet those expats. I avoid the bars that are crowded with foreigners. I kid (only slightly), but introducing these facts is necessary for context.
I was previously the foreign editor of a bilingual magazine, and one of my duties was to translate articles from Chinese to English. But I do often choose to consume much of my reading material, from websites to books, in English just because it is faster and gives me a more complete understanding of the material.
Here’s where Trump is wrong: It is my choice who I make friends with and what language we speak together, as it is everyone else’s choice, and people shouldn’t be judged for it. Trump said Bush “should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States,” but he was communicating with some Spanish-speaking American citizens who might have a particular affinity for the language or even struggle with English.
My situation is different from that of a permanent resident or immigrant, to be sure. I am living and working in a foreign country, however, and knowing the language really helps for finding a job, communicating with locals, eating dinner, shopping, and most aspects of life. In that way, it’s not a question of people refusing to learn English for convenience. Life would be more convenient if all Americans spoke English. Whether politicians speak Spanish on the stump doesn’t change that.
The World Is Multilingual
If governments publish material in foreign languages, does that make it too easy for people to get by in their native tongue and diminish their motivation for learning English? In China, the government also publishes information in foreign languages. In fact, almost all the signs in subways and menus at many restaurants have English translations.
They speak English in Hong Kong, too. In fact, English and Chinese are the two official languages there. However, most people speak Cantonese Chinese, a southern dialect that is mostly incomprehensible to Mandarin Chinese speakers. When I lived in Hong Kong for eight months, I must admit I didn’t put any effort into learning Cantonese. I could get by in my daily life speaking English and Mandarin.
You can meet more than enough people speaking English at a bar in Hong Kong. You can see the shop signs and information in English and read the two widely circulated English-language papers, The South China Morning Post and The Standard. But when I attended some deliberations days for Occupy Central, the pro-democracy protests of 2014, to do reporting, I couldn’t understand what the main speakers were saying.
Sometimes I got help. At one event, someone translated for me, and at other events, an English-speaking friend went with me and gave me notes in English about key points. But I knew I could have had a greater understanding if I could speak Cantonese.
The More Languages, the Merrier
This shows two things: First, people who speak foreign languages to help others understand are not doing anything wrong. They are helping those who need help, and helping themselves and their causes by spreading understanding. If I didn’t have someone to help translate, I wouldn’t have been able to write detailed articles about the Hong Kong democracy movement.
English-speaking Americans aren’t the ones who need to dictate to recent immigrants that they must speak English at all times. Immigrants, for the most part, want to learn English themselves because it will benefit them. And the children of immigrants overwhelmingly are fluent in English. According to American Community Survey data cited by NBC News, six in ten Americans who speak foreign languages at home also speak English well, including eight in ten children.
If no Republican politician communicates to Spanish-speaking groups in their language of choice, the Republican Party will have a harder time reaching those groups and earning their support. As Marco Rubio said at the debate, “I believe that free enterprise and limited government is the best way to help people who are trying to achieve upward mobility, and if they get their news in Spanish, I want them to hear directly from me, not from a translator at Univision.”
Second, thinking back on my time in Hong Kong, I am somewhat disappointed I didn’t learn more Cantonese while I was there. Ultimately, I was the one who lost out because of it.