Don’t immigrants love our language?: @CocaCola and #AmericaisBeautiful

Which of these people speaks English?
Bet you can’t tell which of these people speaks English!

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.

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

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11 thoughts on “Don’t immigrants love our language?: @CocaCola and #AmericaisBeautiful

  1. I don’t get it. The ad was beautiful (despite it being an ad for coke) – why do people make such a fuss about it? How many languages are there in it? – I couldn’t find any numbers.

    I heard a story the other day about someone who was standing in MacDonalds or somewhere speaking on her ‘phone, and this random guy nearby is just like, “This is America. If you want to speak Spanish, go back to your own country.” And the lady turns to him and goes, “I’m speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”

    I spent the first fourteen years of my life in an area where the parents were bilingual and the grandparents only spoke Italian. So it doesn’t seem all that unusual to me that someone could be in an English-speaking country for fifty or sixty years and not learn English, particularly as my aunt has now been here four years and still can’t speak very good English, because she lives in the Korean community, works in the Korean community, and goes to a Korean-language church.

    That said, learning English is neccessary for so many things and it’s a shame so many people get all narky about immigrants not being able to speak English. How many of them are on waiting lists for English classes? I know there aren’t enough classes to go around in parts of the US. My sister told me the other day that once I have my qualification, I should go to the US to teach English. (And I said, They probably wouldn’t want me because I don’t speak the right sort of English!).

    On a similar note, there was a funny incident last year when I was in the US. It was Houston airport, sundry hours past midnight, so we were all tired, and the lady next to me as we wilted onto the chairs waiting for the bags to arrive was talking to her kids in Spanish. My sister needed the loo, and none of us knew where it was, so I turned to her and asked, “Dondé están los baños?” She replied, but she looked so surprised. It didn’t occur to me until we’d been in the US a few days that she’d probably never had a white person address her in Spanish before – which just seemed to me to be the obvious thing to do.

    It’s so sad that people who speak the majority language can be so cruel to people who speak the minority language – especially in places like the US and Australia where there isn’t even an official language anyway!

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  2. I thought the ad was great, and I found the backlash deeply disappointing (though, sadly, not surprising). So hateful, so ignorant, and so full of mistaken assumptions.

    Yes, it’s important for immigrants to learn English – and as you pointed out, most of them at least try. In fact, I think my family’s pattern is fairly typical in that in having learned only English. My great-grandparents immigrated from Ireland and Yugoslavia; I don’t think my grandfather ever learned Irish, and while my grandmother understood Slovenian, she never learned to speak it. By my father’s generation, there was no one left who even understood it.

    The other thing that irritated me was the assumption that only immigrants are native speakers of non-English languages. That commercial included indigenous languages like Keres, many of which are in danger of disappearing. To tell speakers of indigenous languages that they should forsake their native tongues, and the heritage they encompass, strikes me as particularly insulting.

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    1. Thanks. I think your family’s pattern is typical. The same happened with my family. Otherwise, I’d be speaking Swiss German and Swedish.

      It is amazing how closely English is tied with this country, in spite of the multitude of other languages spoken in this country. A calculating–and violent–plan to destroy those languages almost succeeded. The identity of English and the US came before it was a reality.

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  3. I love this post. English is the lingua franca right now and many people, not just immigrants to America desire to and do learn the language. I think it’s beautiful speaking multiple languages but get frustrated with the comprehension gap sometimes or paranoid they are talking about me. Either way it is sad that language learning has dwindled over the years.

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    1. Good point. How often do you run into a comprehension gap? I very rarely run into situations where people can’t understand each other.

      That paranoia is funny, in my experience. When I was studying Russian, I always wondered what all the Russians were talking about in “secret” at my university. I went to Ukraine, learned Russian, and came back and listened. They were saying, “Hey, where should we go to lunch” or “What did you get on that test?” In fact, what they were saying was completely mundane, just like all the other students (surprise!).

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