Speaking Spanish is becoming a big plus
Arizona Republic
May. 14, 2005

On a beautiful Saturday morning, we took my son and his friend to the Great Cardboard Boat Regatta at the Tempe Town Lake.

Before the race, organizers gave a little history of the event that originated at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. I was there and watched my fellow Salukis launch boats in the 1970s at Campus Lake. Talk about an innovative name for the lake on campus.

After this year's Tempe version, we took the boys to Macayo's Depot Cantina. We ran into a stumbling block when they couldn't find the bathroom. Seems they didn't understand the Spanish sign, el Baño.

My son, who hasn't had formal Spanish training, once asked me, "What day is Cinco de Mayo?" and "How do you say burrito in Spanish?" We're raising kids who think Gila is pronounced with a hard g and sí is the third letter of the alphabet.

I've been critical of the Kyrene School District for taking Spanish out of its middle school core curriculum. It was supposedly done in response to budget cuts. It was obviously easy to eliminate a course not subjected to standardized tests.

It was a ridiculous move since the majority of Kyrene schools have Spanish names and Spanish influence is prevalent in this area. Kyrene should probably incorporate Spanish in elementary school.

More than 50 percent of the middle school students at Kyrene del Pueblo have chosen Spanish as an elective next school year. The school will be scrambling to get a few Spanish teachers back. Why was that surprising?

Some of you feel strongly that people who come to this country should learn English. Good luck convincing them. Have you noticed that we cater to Spanish speakers? There's not much incentive or encouragement for them to learn English.

At most stores you can use your bank card on a Spanish or an English key pad. Convenience store exit doors are clearly marked in both languages. The manual for my Maytag dryer came with Spanish instructions. Even Ikea, heavily Swedish-influenced, provides its customers with Spanish or English wish lists.

A Tucson gas station didn't even give me an English option for my debit card and the cashier couldn't understand me when I asked him about it. The former Kmart at Baseline and Interstate 10 would make store announcements in Spanish. I'd ask the girl at the customer service desk what they said and she didn't understand it either.

I waited in line at Home Depot while the cashier tried in vain to communicate with the customer in front of me. He spoke Spanish and tried to tell her that he'd given her a $50 bill and not the $20 bill she was giving him change for. Finally, they resolved the issue and she said to me, "Gosh, I wish I had paid more attention to Spanish in high school." Me, too. Maybe my visit to Home Depot would have been shorter.

Chances are good that businesses will be hiring more bilingual workers to accommodate customers. Spanish speakers can get by without learning English. On the contrary, learning Spanish would be helpful to us English-speaking people living in an area inundated with Spanish words.

The trend toward Spanish reminds me of a crack on a frozen lake. It's hard to stop that crack from inevitably increasing in size. It's the same for the number of Spanish speakers. I hate to see the next generation left behind on a fragile frozen lake, especially if not knowing Spanish is like being out there in a cardboard boat.

Mary Ann Hemmingson is a 23-year resident of the East Valley who has been a Tempe stay-at-home mom for 16 years. She can be reached at