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Teachings of My Father, Part 2

My father is a Spanish speaking bilingual, but he never taught me how to speak it. He intentionally omitted it in my rearing. Bilingual people, especially those who speak Spanish, gasp at the audacity. Personally, I’ve never faulted him for it because, for one, I never really missed it, and two, he had very good reasons for doing it. When he was in grade school, he was at one time required to sing “Three Blind Mice.” The pronunciation of “mice” in Spanish means “corn.” For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why they were singing about “three bind corn!”

This is but a small and somewhat funny example of what he would consider a personal demerit. And it stands as a testament to his reasons for not teaching me Spanish. In a not-so-funny example, and certainly more profound, the school used to punish him, harshly, for speaking Spanish, despite it being the only language he knew. Have you ever been punished for speaking English?

In this country, and for most of the world, the language of business is English. He wanted to make sure my brother and I knew English first. Spanish is a luxury, and if you need to learn it, you will. People have approached me, expecting me to know Spanish. It surprises them that I don’t. “Surprise” is hardly the word, however, when they discover I am a registered Professional Electrical Engineer. Yeah, that really knocks them on their ass! The ol’ one-two, as it were.

You may notice that bilingual people typically have customer service jobs. These are the folks on the front lines of business and government. I don’t and won’t work customer service. The biggest reason is because the job pays about a third what I make. It’s a shame, really, because knowing two languages in this country is an awesome talent! I admire it, and it is not compensated nearly enough.

Consider this experience: In 1988, I was on my way to completing my degree. I worked part time for the Physical Science Lab, a research arm of the university I was attending. I had a very meager contribution to a set of technical prints I delivered to one of the shop foremen. I handed him the prints and we started talking. Within a minute a two he started speaking Spanish. A bit embarrassed, I told him I did not understand him. “You don’t know Spanish?” he asked with surprise. He cocked his head slightly, looked at me sideways and said “What happened to you, John?” We both chuckled and continued with the business at hand.

I wonder if he saw the irony? Yes, he knows two languages. But it was I, a monolingual, who handed him the prints. That same scenario plays out regularly today. I often hand technical prints to people who can speak two languages (Spanish speaking or Navajo speaking bilinguals), but I have a far greater contribution to the technical prints.

Bilinguals more readily travel the world. That sounds cool, but have you been on an airline trip lately? Traveling sucks! Especially when you have to do it for a living. I have no desire to travel, especially to another country—not in this hostile environment.

To date I’ve never had a specific need to know Spanish. I do know enough to figure out what people are talking about, but I just don’t have a need for it. I do know some languages though. Visual Basic for Excel, for example, is a computer programming language I know. It is a bullet item on my resume, and has helped keep me employed.

I also know “geek speak,” sometimes called “engineerian.” And I can translate it to understandable English for customers of all types including, vendors, managers, fellow employees, government agencies, and public leaders. Were I to translate it to Spanish for any these people, it would be meaningless because none of them speak the language.

Finally, the many forms of mathematics make up a glorious language unto itself. When I research a project completed by my predecessor, I read his written words, and I read his mathematics. This is how he speaks to me. His math completes the story, and I understand him just fine. There are few people who can do this. That puts me in high demand, keeps me employed, and makes my paycheck a little fatter than most. This career thing is working out great for me, and that’s what my father intended.

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