THE BLOG
12/14/2009 06:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bilingual Curious: Why Every American Should Learn Spanish

All the members of my family speak Spanish better than I do. Some of them were born in Latin America, which gives them an unfair advantage. Others took to studying the language when they were younger, while I was busy mastering Ms. Pac-Man.

Regardless, I am now in solid adulthood and burdened with a foreign-language aptitude that can only be described as muy malo. My hope is that by chipping away for a few hours each week, I will regain my long-lost fluency.

My studying recently consisted of an attempt to watch Spanish television. Flicking on the station at random, I caught the last fifteen minutes of what appeared to be a Mexican version of the Jerry Springer Show.

On the program, an older couple confronted their young adult daughter about her lifestyle. At one point, the parents really let her have it over some shameful behavior.

Evidently, the woman had sex with four men in one month. Or she had a walrus for lunch. I was unsure because, like I said, my Spanish is poor. Then it became impossible to track what was going on because they all started yelling at each other. The body language, however, was easy to translate.

Besides diminishing my already low opinion of human nature, the program also intimidated me. Listening to native Spanish speakers roll out rapid-fire questions and declarations verified how much I have to relearn. Up to that point, I felt pretty confident about understanding basic sentences. But the furious accusations on the show were far removed from the leisurely paced, innocuous dialogues on my Spanish-class podcasts.

The brilliant David Sedaris has pointed out the surreal nature of learning a new language as an adult. He writes that the conversations used in language courses "steer clear of slang and controversy. Avoiding both the past and the future, they embrace the moment with a stoicism common to Buddhists and recently recovered alcoholics."

Yes, it's quite a leap from comprehending someone's observation that the sky is blue to understanding what that guy is screaming about at the top of his lungs.

I could easily abandon my efforts, because despite the shrill warnings of xenophobes, English is not going away anytime soon.

After all, English is the lingua franca of American pop culture, international business, and the internet. Nobody has achieved success in America without knowing at least some English. And people from Mexico to India to China are learning that it's in their best interests to study the language.

So with English firmly ensconced, why should I, or anyone, bother to learn Spanish?

Well, first, there is the practical aspect. According to the U.S Census Bureau, about 12 percent of U.S. residents speak Spanish at home. They range from adults who don't know any English to little kids who are perfectly bilingual. Within this range are millions of Americans who prefer to communicate in Spanish.

At some point, you will need to talk to someone who will throw a cascade of trilled R's at you. It will happen. And when it does, gesturing randomly or yelling louder in English will not work.

A second reason for learning Spanish is pure economics. Among the few booming occupations are jobs where Spanish is considered a plus, if not an outright requirement. Both the blue-collar construction worker and the white-collar marketing manager are learning that it's smart to know the difference between lo siento and claro que se. In these recessionary times, a little awareness of Spanish can be the difference between landing the gig or spending another day watching soaps.

In addition to these practical matters, there is the fact that we are a multicultural society. We have always been a multicultural society, in truth. It just is no longer possible to wall ourselves off and demand that everyone acquiesce to the majority's needs. Showing respect for other cultures, and gaining a basic understanding and empathy of others, is becoming a necessary skill - not a luxury for do-gooders.

Finally, exercising your brain and learning something new will never hurt you. So don't worry.

Of course, for me, there is another, more personal reason. Growing up Latino without a firm grasp of Spanish is culturally confusing. It gets into messy questions of identity and authenticity, and we all love addressing those issues as middle age closes in.

So I'm going to hit the books and internet sites. When I get up to speed again, maybe I'll take an intermediate class. It will take weeks, perhaps months, before I'm ready to tackle a conversation with a native speaker. When it comes, and I stutter past the initial Buenos dias, it will be a sublime breakthrough.