The new mother sharing my wife's hospital room wanted a pain killer. The nurse responded that it was time to get dressed to be discharged from the hospital. Theater of the absurd? Not really. The patient spoke Spanish and the nurse English. I interpreted, and they eventually calmed down. The nurse told me later that those kinds of problems could be avoided if 'they" would simply learn English.
I could not help thinking that "they" would include my own Italian-speaking parents in New Jersey, who know no more than a few words of English. Both of them had been in hospitals many times and in similar situations to that of the Mexican woman in my wife's room.
For the nurse, it was very logical. After all, if she were to live in Mexico, she would have to learn Spanish. It's difficult to argue with that logic. But it's not impossible. Why didn't the Mexican woman speak English? Did she wish she knew the language? Of course. Just imagine being in a hospital after a C-section and not be able to ask for a glass of water, another blanket, a pain killer. Then why don't "they" learn English and make life easier for themselves?
Learning a language is not easy. A number of factors influence one's ability to learn. The first one is age. Most immigrants who come to the U.S. as babies eventually learn English as virtual native-born Americans if they are exposed to it on the playground, through television and so on. Those who come as adults will learn enough to get by, but most will never be entirely fluent or lose their accent. Some may never learn the language because of low educational background in their own language, because they are too busy earning a living, or some other barrier. Gender also affects one's learning ability. Immigrant women who stay home and care for their kids are less likely to learn than men who go to work and are forced to have some interaction with Americans.
Anyone who thinks that learning a language is easy should talk with Americans who have lived overseas for many years. Most of them don't learn much of the foreign language.
Spanish-speaking immigrants have in some ways less of a need to learn English than immigrants from other countries because Spanish is such an important language here. Radio, TV or newspapers in Bulgarian are not easily available, but in Spanish they are. Indeed, it's possible to live in the U.S. with just Spanish. However, it's impossible be very successful in the U.S. without knowing English and venturing into the English-speaking world.
English is the key to success in America. Spanish-speaking immigrants want to learn English and get an education because they understand that without doing so, they will be condemned to a life of menial work. For proof of this, all one has to do is look at the large number of people attending night classes to learn English and note the large number of commercials on Spanish TV peddling tapes and videos promising to teach English the easy way.
The woman sharing my wife's room left the hospital the day before my wife was discharged. I didn't get to say goodby and probably will never see her again. Will she eventually learn enough English to get by? Quite likely. But I am absolutely certain that if the family stays here, her U.S.-born baby will learn English as well as mine.