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January 15, 2014

CEPEDA: Mayor Bloomberg's halting Spanish

(Continued)

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. She can be reached at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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