It's Never Rude to Speak Your Native Language

what happened when my column about my Spanish-speaking family went viral

Walter Rhein |

Yesterday I took my family to look at a used car. We’d found a rusted out “beater with a heater” on Craigslist which I thought could be used for picking up my children from school. After a quick test drive, I turned to consult my wife in Spanish. After a few words, I turned back to the man who was selling the car.

“Now there’s a skill I wish I had,” he said kindly. “I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish. I tried Rosetta stone and a bunch of other classes, but I just can’t seem to pick it up.”

We shared a couple more trivialities, but it wasn’t until later that I realized what a remarkable exchange that was. Some people are provoked simply by the sound of Spanish, so it’s good to point out when you have an interaction with a person who displays an admirable attitude.

Recently I wrote a column for the Leader-Telegram titled “Speaking Spanish in America,” dealing with how people have recently come to object when I speak in Spanish publicly. In one of those quirks of fate, the Internet grabbed hold and the story ignited. I began to receive emails, texts, and Facebook messages expressing solidarity with my position, first from friends, then from random people I’d never met. The article’s reach widened even further and people began sending friend requests and leaving heartfelt replies. As I write this, the article is at 79,000 likes with over 1,500 comments.

But among all the positive support there is a fair amount of hate mail. I’ve been accused of lying and exaggerating the truth. I’ve been told to move back to Peru. One guy even said I was “what’s wrong with America.” Honestly, if the problems of this country could be so easily fixed by eliminating me, I’d be the first to remove myself. But sadly, that’s not the case.

One of the recurring objections that appears in the comments is the sentiment that it is somehow “rude” to speak Spanish in public. You will see this argument over and over, even from people who are otherwise open to the message.

“It’s disrespectful to speak a language I don’t understand.”

“Why do I have to ‘Press 1 for English?’ ”

“You have to assimilate or leave.”

That last is especially saddening because often it comes from foreign-born individuals who have been convinced they must forget their heritage in order to conform to U.S. culture. The reality is that the U.S. is strengthened by bilingual citizens who have roots in two worlds.

The arguments against speaking Spanish are absolutely wrong.

It is not rude to speak Spanish in public in the United States.

That bears repeating.

It is not rude to speak Spanish in public in the United States. It is not disrespectful. It is not wrong in any way.

It’s no more rude to speak Spanish in public in the USA than it is to practice your religion, or to have skin pigment, or to have freckles, or to have blonde or red or black hair, or to wear the traditional clothing of your culture. You are doing nothing wrong in any of these cases.

“But I can’t understand you.”

That’s your problem.

“But it makes me feel as if you are talking about me.”

Get over yourself, you’re not that interesting.

“English is the official language of the U.S.”

No it isn’t, the U.S. does not have an official language.

Our nation is gripped by an insane sense of entitlement on this issue that is in conflict with everything this great nation is supposed to stand for. So many people have forgotten their history. One of the many kind people who sent me a comment reminded me of our nation’s original motto, chosen by the Founding Fathers: “E pluribus unum,” which means “Out of many, one.” The U.S. is the melting pot where people come together, where languages and religions and cultures are shared and encouraged to be practiced openly. Our forefathers came here to escape persecution. To persecute others is to dishonor the memories of the founders of this nation, and to betray who we are.

It is impossible to wall out the other cultures of the world. No nation has ever successfully secured its borders with a wall. When our great wall-breaking President Ronald Reagan demanded the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, it was in defense of freedom and the free exchange of ideas.

Now we are the country proposing to wall ourselves in, as if we aren’t already walled in enough. But even a wall will not erase the knowledge of language in the minds of other people. The presence of a wall will not remove from existence the difficult and daunting lessons we must learn as human beings. You might think you are protected by a wall. I say you’ve been confined to a cage. What a pathetic proposal from a country that declares its love of freedom. What cowardice to submit to entrapment.

My children are born of two cultures. They will speak two languages. They will never be made to feel that one culture is either better or worse than the other. They will never have to feel ashamed for one of their cultures. I won’t allow it.

The First Amendment gives us the right to speak our minds. I am capable using complex syntax and obscure words that make simple statements completely unclear. Is that rude? Is that disrespectful? If a person is taken by the spirit of the Lord and begins speaking in tongues at church, is that rude? Is that disrespectful? I live in the city of “Eau Claire.” Should I start calling it “Clear Water” to use English instead of French? Is the foreign name of this city in the USA disrespectful? What about the name “America” itself? It doesn’t come from English. You are not in the right when you work yourself into hysteria at the sound of a non-English language. Don’t be on the wrong side of history.

It is not rude to Speak Spanish in the United States of America.

It is rude to say, “This is America, we speak English.”

To all Spanish speakers out there: Please teach your children your language. Teach them English, too. Teach them as many languages as possible. It is not an act of “assimilation” to deny yourself the study of a useful skill, that is “control.” Speak your languages loud and proud. To suppress any language is to suppress the basic freedoms of this country. People have died for your right to speak Spanish in the USA; don’t disrespect their sacrifice.

Be like the guy from Craigslist whose car I went to look at.

“I’ve always wanted to learn that language,” he said.

Do so.

Languages open doors and tear down walls. Languages release you from the cages you were not even aware had been placed around you. Language is not provocation. It is essentially human. Speak your language and speak mine. Out of many, one.

Walter Rhein is the author of Perseid Press release Reckless Traveler, an expat novel dealing with his adventures living and traveling in Peru. He runs the blog StreetsOfLima, and writes for Silent Sports and Singletracks. Email him at