En español, por favor

“Making English the official language of the United States of America is about as urgently called for as making hot dogs the official food at baseball games.”

—Geoffrey Pullum, linguist

Goal: Buy towels for the apartment where I’d live while working as guest university professor in 2008. I arrived in Santiago, Chile, after 24 hours of travel. A translator helped me read an apartment lease. I signed and then I was alone in la tierra de hablantes de español.

I wanted to relax, take a shower. But I hadn’t packed a towel. No panic. I’d simply venture out into the city of 6 million. I had a credit card. I’d seen stores.

I walked for miles. In one store, I mimicked the act of showering to communicate my towel needs. An amused clerk gave me directions to a store comparable to Bed, Bath & Beyond. As his directions were in Spanish, I became hopelessly lost.

A hyper-educated U.S. female, I’m used to feeling competent. In Chile, the inability to communicate gouged my confidence. Hungry, grubby and tired, I felt idiotic for arriving in South America, sin toalla (without towel) and, more critically, sin español (without Spanish).

To our credit in the United States, we’ve attained a friendly bilingual vibe, especially in the West. Spanish-speaking visitors say it’s easy to get around, shop and order at restaurants. I was at the Reno police station recently and when a Hispanic woman walked in to file a police report, a translator showed up immediately to help.

That said, two bill draft requests for the 2011 Legislature would make English Nevada’s official language (BDR 19—231) and require driver’s license tests to be administered only in English (BDR 43—576). In recent years, nearly 30 states have named English as the official language. Proponents say state and local governments save money on printing costs by not publishing, say, election information in both English and Spanish.

I’ve recently noticed more frequent instances of tired rhetoric about visitors and immigrants to the United States, “Learn English. You’re in America!”

I agree. We should all learn English. Everyone in the world should learn English. Then everywhere I travel, towel purchases will be simple.

More than a quarter of Nevadans might not appreciate English elitism, though. Here’s recent U.S. Census info:

Nineteen percent of the people living in Nevada in 2005-2009 were foreign born.

Among Nevadans age 5 and older, 27 percent spoke a language other than English at home.

Of these, 71 percent spoke Spanish, 29 percent spoke another language and 47 percent reported that they did not speak English “very well.”

That’s why I’m not too worried about the xenophobic efforts of fearful Nevadans. With a growing Hispanic population, perhaps the issue could be turned on its head in the not-too-distant future. Imagine lawmakers considering Spanish as Nevada’s official language.

La gente va a discutir sobre esto en español. Nevada monolingües, las personas que sólo hablan ingles, no entender la conversación.

Let’s hope elected officials then care about the needs of a future English-speaking minority. For now, consider Nicholas Kristof’s advice in a recent New York Times column. Kristof writes about trendy parents sending toddlers to Chinese language lessons. He suggests kids might be better served by learning a language more immediately applicable, “Primero hay que aprender español.”

After spending my first afternoon wandering the streets of Santiago, Chile, I finally found a store that sold factory-second garments—y las toallas. I picked out two giant fluffy ones and paid the U.S. equivalent of $35. (A sign clearly explained that items were sold by the kilogram.) Que gringa! That shower was worth every penny.