The Super Bowl set me on an emotional roller-coaster. First, I’m a Broncos fan. (Thank you for your condolences.) Second, the Coca Cola ad, “America is Beautiful,” got me so excited. How often do we get to hear so many languages during the second biggest US winter holiday festival? If you didn’t get to see this cool commercial, see it here.
Once I went on Twitter and searched #AmericaisBeautiful, though, I realized that some were less excited than me. I don’t want to give any press to the insulting, negative responses, so I won’t quote them here. One common spirit among them, however, was, “This is the US so speak English!” The commercial provoked this reaction because the ad reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly OK for immigrants to speak a language besides English. This sentiment arises from ignorance manifested by a wrong presupposition, namely, the prejudice that immigrants in the US choose not speak English.
Americans tend to be isolated. We’re famous for not knowing our neighbors, not knowing geography, and not knowing languages. We similarly don’t know immigrants. As a result, we don’t know what they are thinking, so we impose our own imagined perception on them.
How often have you heard a non-English speaker say they didn’t want to learn English? Probably never, if you are a “typical” American. The average American does not speak a foreign language, hence they cannot speak to non-English speakers. Most people who claim that non-English speakers do not want to learn English cannot have any direct information to back it up.
The non-English speaking immigrants I’ve talked to from multiple countries universally underscore the importance of learning English in the US. (Fortunately, they’re insulated from the “immigrants should learn English” discussion since it is entirely in English.) Statistics further support the experience that I’ve had. One study showed that about 90% of Hispanics believe that learning English in the US is necessary to succeed. The numbers actually go up among those who are more Spanish-dominant. (See the survey results from the Cato Institute here.)
Nevertheless, some immigrants in the US do not learn English. Why don’t they? Most of those who do not speak English tend to be older, and we know that learning a new language becomes harder the older one becomes. In addition, some simply do not have time, as they work multiple jobs, often physically grueling. (I must add, though, that I saw plenty of folks on the bus in Seattle studying English.) Finally, I know of one refugee where emotional trauma seemed to prevent learning effective English.
Facts show that immigrants believe that learning English is important for getting ahead. Only external circumstances–age, work, health–prevent them. So they agree with their critics, in fact. The critics are incorrect in that they believe that it’s a difference of opinion, that they need to convince non-English speaking immigrants to drop an anti-English “ideology.” These immigrants don’t hold this ideology, and they already have incentives to learn English.
One sees that ignorance breeds further ignorance. Because most Americans don’t speak other languages, they don’t know non-English speakers. Nature abhors a vacuum, so these people invent a “state of mind” for those people based on prejudice rather than facts. On this basis, they want to enact policies that correct this state, thus changing the way those non-English speakers think. The people who push back on such policies thus appear to cling stubbornly to a backwards way of thinking.
In fact, the US is full of intelligent, hardworking, loving bilingual people. (So many that Coke would like to spend millions of dollars to sell their sugary drink to them.) These people offer a different way of thinking about many issues than most Americans know about. For average Americans to benefit from the wealth of knowledge and cultural wisdom that already exists in the US, it would behoove them to learn another language or learn which of the Americans around them–like the girls in the advertisement–are already bilingual.