Burgeoning Spanish vs. 'Broken' English: Maybe Let’s Consider Why We’re Praising Alex Bregman

Every October I complete a ritual known as ‘caring about the AL for about a month.’ (I mean, nothing wrong with it, but have they considered letting pitchers hit?) Part of this ritual includes getting know more about various AL players, like Alex Bregman, the Astros affable, quick-handed third-baseman. (Also, the Astros won it in 7. Not saying I’m writing this to say ‘called it,’ but called it.)

So it was cool getting to know more about the Astros generally (not Gurriel), and Bregman specifically, including finding out that he’s learning Spanish to better communicate with his Spanish-speaking teammates, which includes the rest of the infield.

This New York Times piece discusses his efforts to learn the language, as well as his own overestimate of his fluency and his team’s gentle ribbing about his apparently terrible accent. It also quotes teammate Carlos Beltrán, whose advocacy was instrumental in getting the MLB to provide a Spanish-speaking staff member for each team to serve as an official translator and interpreter, saying the most important thing is that Bregman tries, even if he has odd word choices.

To its credit, the article acknowledges that Bregman chose to learn Spanish, and contrasts this with his teammates who have had to learn English to communicate with English-language media. (It also didn’t ponle acento a Beltrán.)

Other pieces also mention but don’t unpack, this contrast. In this ESPN article, Bregman’s Spanish-speaking teammates praise his hard work in learning Spanish. It also quotes Bregman, who says that he hopes one day to be bilingual, like teammate Carlos Correa, and that he sees speaking Spanish as a necessity if he wants to be a leader on a Latino-heavy team. (And if he ever needs a conversation partner, I’m told that my Resting Pitchface coconspirator Laura volunteers as tribute.)

All of this is fair coverage - but it feels somewhat incomplete.

Bregman’s efforts are absolutely praiseworthy, and I’m not writing this to be critical of him. I’m writing as someone engaged in similar efforts - learning Spanish for work and, in part, because I live in a predominantly Latino neighborhood and should be able to communicate effectively with friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

Bregman seems like, for want of a better term, a good egg with a fielding percentage almost, but not quite as good, as Anthony Rendon’s. (Sorry, I had to. #anthonyismyfavoriteplayer) But praise for an English-speaking player learning Spanish - on his own time, with a high tolerance for his mistakes - buys into unstated notions about bilinguality, and praises Bregman while not extending the same praise to his teammates.

What Bregman is doing is known as elective bilingualism, or learning a second language as a foreign language. It’s generally done with the assumption that the learner will retain their fluency in their dominant language. No one thinks that Bregman will transition from speaking and writing predominantly in English to doing so in Spanish. Adding a second language is seen as a choice, worthy of New York Times-level praise, a function of his being enlightened, educated, even erudite - but ultimately an elective, individual effort. Oh, look a footnote.* 

His teammates, however, are engaging in circumstantial bilingualism, learning a second language as a second language. This is generally done with the assumption that the learner will eventually displace their primary language in order to function in the dominant social language. A learner might still speak a home language (in their case, Spanish), but for official or ‘high’ functions, they are expected to participate in their second language, such as players speaking to English-language media in English. People who are circumstantially bilingual do not expect that the society in which they function will honor or even respect their primary language. Their attempts to learn a second language will be met with a low tolerance for mistakes and limited praise for their efforts.

So, going back to baseball terms: Bregman can make mistakes and be seen as hard-working because he’s ‘chosen’ to learn a second language. Beltrán, who is now functionally bilingual but has spoken about his early attempts to learn English as difficult and isolating, would be seen as ‘inarticulate’ for having a limited vocabulary and phraseology in English. One is choosing to learn a second language as an addition to his first, a sign of ‘leadership’ because he’s doing something that isn’t strictly necessary; the other is obligated to do so, quickly, and with limited tolerance for mistakes. Bregman’s Spanish is burgeoning; Beltrán’s English was ‘broken.’

This contrast - Spanish-speaking players have to learn English while English speakers can choose to do so - is largely unstated in articles about Bregman. Would the Times publish a piece on José Altuve’s fluency in English? No, because it’s the ‘dog bites man’ of baseball’s approach to language acquisition.

Players come to the United States (or Toronto), learn English rapidly, either via teammates or language classes in the minors, because they have to, and aren’t generally given much attention for meeting this expectation. Wilmer Difo walked up to ‘Unchained Melody’ for much of the season, a song he discovered in his attempts to improve his English. That he was walking up to a sentimental ‘oldie’ was newsworthy; that he listening to music to learn English wasn’t.

Last year, the Houston Chronicle came under rightful criticism after quoting Carlos Gómez verbatim in ‘broken’ English. Japanese-speaking players like Yu Darvish and Ichiro - whose social English is fine but who have expressed concerns over being seen as inarticulate or being misunderstood - retain interpreters as intercessors between the media and themselves.

The campaign to ‘ponle acento’ and the provision of official Spanish-speaking interpreters to MLB teams are good, though hard-won, first steps, both a long time coming in a sport that’s now 25 percent Latino and about 30 percent non-US-born. Teams have Spanish-language broadcasts and social media, including LasMayores and the Nationals more anemic efforts, and the Ponle Acento campaign in September brought awareness to the issue of misspelling players’ names.

Nationals-side note: Many teams have Spanish-language radio broadcasts, but the Nats don’t, which seems like a major oversight in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, where people who speak Spanish at home make up about 6 percent of each entity’s population (DC - still not a state!), but about three-quarters of a million people, total, and about 50 percent of non-English-speakers, according to American Community Survey data.

Things are improving, but slowly, incrementally, and aimed at fixing issues with Latino players such as media relations and name Anglicization, rather than designing a more inclusive environment by having English-speaking players learn Spanish, and supporting and encouraging bilingual reporting.

So, while Bregman is doing something extraordinary, praise for his efforts should also acknowledge the more difficult ‘ordinary’ efforts of his teammates. And if what he’s doing is truly exemplary, then MLB should use it as an example and provide more sustained, systematic approaches to bridging the linguistic divide in clubhouses. The League has largely been reactive in issues of concerning language equity. Perhaps it’s time for some leadership beyond just praising and elevating an individual effort.

* These come from two great reads: ‘English Language Learners and the New Standards: Developing Language, Content Knowledge, and Analytical Practices in the Classroom,’ published in 2015, which cites Guadalupe Valdes’s ‘Bilingual Minorities and Language Issues in Writing: Toward Profession-Wide Responses to a New Challenge,’ published in 1992.