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Esther Cepeda: Mayor Bloomberg’s halting Spanish

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Esther Cepeda
December 11, 2013

CHICAGO -- Outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says critics of his broken Spanish should just “get a life.”

 Bloomberg, noting his continuing work on perfecting his facility with the second most-spoken language in the world, told a talk radio host, “You know, I’m going to get there; I don’t have any doubts about that. And these people that make fun of me, you know, what do I care? You know, you wonder, why don’t they just get a life?”

 I hate to think of Bloomberg letting his critics upset him over, of all things, Spanish pronunciations. Honestly, he’s got enough haters that any number of them complain about anything he does.

 Maybe it’s because I live far away from New York and the ramifications of Bloomberg’s creative public policies, but I’ve always liked the guy.

 And I happen to love his syntactically bizarre, monotone, yet earnestly delivered Spanish. Sure, his effort inspires some head-shaking, but you have to appreciate his technical accuracy.

 Until Bloomberg’s latest comments, I always thought that the parody Twitter account @ElBloombito, written by the devastatingly funny Rachel Figueroa-Levin, came off as a brilliant bit of fan homage. Perhaps it reads that way if you admire Bloomberg’s sincere linguistic attempts. But Figueroa-Levin told a reporter that she isn’t a fan of Bloomberg and considers him an ultra-rich egotist.

 Frankly, I can’t imagine how anyone—especially those with the experience of having to see their own close ones struggle with the harsh difficulties of the English language—could blast the mayor for not being perfectly fluent.

 (And just imagine what would hit the fan if people made fun of a prominent Latino’s accented English. The fallout would be apocalyptic.)

 Maybe it’s because bilingual people who have true fluency in two languages from always being immersed in both don’t understand how terribly difficult it is to learn a new language—much less speak it publicly, opening oneself to ridicule.

 That bravery alone warrants brownie points for effort.

 In 2010, I began attending martial arts classes at a Korean school where the masters barely spoke any English and expected every student to learn the authentic language of their art in order to progress through the belt tests.

 After three years of practicing simple numbers and the names of only 20 or so sword forms, each time I was called upon to count to 10 in Korean while executing simple combinations, I still couldn’t get the phrasing right. Burning tears threatened to spill out of my eyes in those high-pressure situations.

 Sometimes the masters would talk to me in Korean-accented English, and my fevered mind would respond in a jumble of Spanish and English out of desperation to say something—anything—before being yelled at.

 Experiencing that fear and embarrassment on such a tiny scale was an awesome lesson in the humility anyone needs to be able to get another language to work in their mouth.

 Sure, the school could have simply translated all the terms and had us memorize them in English. But taking the time to speak to our teachers in the language of their discipline was our act of reverence.

 That’s what it comes down to for me—respect. A billionaire heading the epicenter of clout and power in America is not obligated to take the time to learn a second language well enough to speak it to less than a third of the residents of his city.

He does it because he wants to show those people that he cares about them enough to say a few words in their native tongue—especially in times of stress, such as when Bloomberg addressed Spanish speakers in the middle of emergency briefings last year about Hurricane Sandy.

 His pronunciations aren’t perfect yet—so what? The country would benefit by more politicians who care enough about others to try mastering their language.

 Bloomberg’s Spanish is lovely for what it is—a welcome show of respeto, regardless of whether he can trill his “R’s.” Anyone who can’t admire that really does need to get a life.

 Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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