The essay Gains and Losses by Richard Rodriguez deals with one of the most important and controversial questions in American society what is the role of the English language in the United States and throughout the rest of the world? As one finishes this essay, though, one might be left with an additional, and possibly quite different question what role should the English language play in the United States and throughout the rest of the world? I have long believed that English is most definitely a national language in the United States, but that it should not be the United States official language . Rodriguez s essay is unique in that it supports this idea from his personal experience. The childhood story which Richard Rodriguez tells here should be more than enough to convince anyone that it is imperative that the English language is not forced upon everyone who lives in the United States, and that the United States never adopts English (or any other language, for that matter) as its official language.
Throughout this essay, Rodriguez constantly refers to the contradicting public and private aspects of his family s life. It is interesting to note, though, that references to his private life grow fewer and fewer as he progresses through the essay. Towards the beginning of his story, Rodriguez refers to both his public life and his private life equally, and he makes a particularly important distinction between these two lives when he says that he wrongly imagined that English was intrinsically a public language and Spanish an intrinsically private one (49). He talks about how, as a child, he had a pleasing family life (49), and it seems obvious that one reason for this pleasing family life is the fact that when he was with his family, they spoke in their native tongue Spanish. As the essay progresses, he and his family are forced to learn and speak English, he talks less and less about his former joyous family life, and more and more about his public life. In fact, he uses the word private only when referring to his familial use of the Spanish language.
The conversion to the English language had a profound effect upon his parents lives as well. It is true that children are able to learn a different language at a much faster rate than adults are. That fact is certainly demonstrated in this essay as the English language serves as more of a form of humiliation for Richard s parents than a new form of communication. On page 51, Rodriguez discusses the emergence and growth of a breakdown in communication between his parents and the children as they were all trying to adapt and learn English. On page 52 especially, he explains how his father was essentially linguistically incapacitated when he was forced to communicate in English:
father was not shy, I realized, when I d watch him speaking Spanish with
relatives. Using Spanish, he was quickly effusive. Especially when talking
would never allow him. (52)
Rodriguez also tells how his mother became the public figure in the family due to his father s inability to speak English well, and it is very likely that this only served to further wound the father s pride.
Rodriguez does acknowledge in that last half of the essay that English did eventually become his primary language, and while he does appear to be content with his life at this point in time, he will not ever forget the negative impact that the English language has had upon his life, and the lives of those close to him: I would have been happier about my public success had I not sometimes recalled what it had been like earlier, when my family had conveyed its intimacy through a set of conveniently private sounds (52-53). A question arises when one compares this statement to when he earlier said that he wrongfully assumed that English was a public language, and that Spanish was a private language. Rather, it would appear that, for him and his family, English was indeed a public language. It succeeded in tearing their private life apart taking the place of their native Spanish language. While his family still spoke Spanish at home, their private life was thriving; however, as soon as he heard his mother and father speak in a moment of seriousness in broken suddenly heartbreaking English (50), their entire family structure was permanently altered. Later, he looked back and tried to remember what his family was like before they were invaded by the English language, but he noticed that he could not even address his parents as mam and pap (51) because they would have been too painful reminders of how much had changed (51-52) in his life.
There is no denying that English did have a significant, and in part, positive, impact on Richard Rodriguez s life. I agree that it is convenient to have a common public language; however, when the introduction of that language to non-native speakers has such a negative impact as it did in this essay, one must question the morality of the use and implementation of that public language. At the conclusion of his essay, Rodriguez refers to the Hispanic-looking faces of strangers in the crowd going by (53). His reference to these people as strangers is particularly troubling because it shows that he truly considers himself to be different from them he is an English-speaking American, and they are Hispanic-looking strangers. One must never underestimate the importance that a native language has for a group of people, and one must always be careful when trying to impose languages because the side effects can be disastrous.