Being American doesn’t mean speaking English

This is not the US!
This is not the US!

My family forgot, over the course of 2-3 generations, how to speak German (Swiss Basel dialect and Pennsylvania Dutch), Irish, Welsh, and Scottish. My wife’s family forgot how to speak Russian, French, and German. In the place where I live (Minnesota, USA), they forgot Ojibwe, Lakota, and Menominee, along with a countless number of European, Asian, African, and South American languages. (I have a coworker who personally forgot how to speak Aymara and Quechua.)

They didn’t simply “forget,” though. They were forced to forget. US society forces families and communities to forget. From the physical punishment of African slaves and Native American boarding school students, to the shaming peer-pressure of the modern suburban Middle School, our society squeezes the languages out of communities. Our society makes plain that to be one of “us,” your speech cannot betray any trace of the “Old World.”

Forgetting about the Old World makes us Americans.
We look—and listen—with suspicion on those Americans who still speak the languages of the Old Country. “Go back to Mexico/Somalia/etc.!” Americans might respond to someone, simply because they are not speaking English in the moment. Those self-appointed immigration-police care more about what they hear than any document.

You show true fealty to the US Constitution by speaking English alone in public.

Americans have a problem, though, because we all understand that the US is are a “nation of immigrants” (which, of course, excludes Native Americans as true Americans), but we can’t agree on what happens once you’ve immigrated. What do you keep of your home culture? What do you forget?

According to a Gallup Poll 69% of Americans believe that it is essential or valuable to speak a foreign language. Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe that it is crucial for immigrants in the US to speak English.

Most importantly, about one in four Americans can converse in a language other than English. That means that 25% of Americans already possess what two-thirds of Americans consider at least a valuable—even essential—skill.

Here’s the American “script” for these people. The children of these immigrants will speak English perfectly and rudimentary bits of their parents’ language. The grandchildren of the immigrants will be able to say hello and name 5-6 dishes in their grandparents’ language—and be frustrated that their parents never taught them the language. The grandchildren will be fine speaking English, and will shrug off forgetting their family’s language, though a few might be motivated to pick up a bit of the language.

If we have people who already know another language, and two-thirds believe that this is an important skill, then we need to nurture the languages that already exist. This is easier than teaching a language from nothing to children of monolingual parents.

We need to rethink what it means to be American. We have the right. Moreover, history is on our side. The US has never been monolingual, no matter how hard we try.

Repeat after me:

Being American doesn’t mean speaking English.

So how do we change things? What do we do next?

By US Government – US Government, Public Domain, Link

5 thoughts on “Being American doesn’t mean speaking English

  1. The loss of a language is a terrible thing. As a Brit who made her way to Spain 40 years ago, I stumbled upon the Basque language. Although I was still struggling to become fluent in Spanish at the time, I felt morally obliged to at least attempt to learn Basque, the language of the Basque country in Spain. The dictator Francisco Franco had banned the use of Basque language during his dictatorship of 40 years. Fortunately nowadays there is something of a come-back and the younger generation are trying to revive what was lost.
    Very interesting post. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My family has lost touch with all of our roots. One grandfather used to visit Finland and correspond with our relatives there, but no one else stepped up to the plate when he passed away. On the other side, we used the Polish words for grandparents, but that’s the only language bit that survived assimilation.

    When I have a family, I want my kids to be able to speak Russian. I don’t want them to drift away from my husband’s roots. I hope we can make the language enticing and relevant for our kids.

    I do think the internet (blogs, instagram, etc) has actually made it cooler to be a heritage speaker. It’s easier to “get in touch” with your roots, inspire others, and be inspired. I see a lot of people with Ukrainian roots doing this, at least. It’s almost like- while the immediate community might not always welcome a language/culture, there is a community on the internet where those kinds of things are praised and supported. Have you encountered any of this?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The internet does offer some cool ways for young folks to plug into the culture of their forefathers, and into like-minded young people. For example, I have a friend who works on the website. He is American of Ethiopian descent. This website describes and comments on Ethiopian culture in Los Angeles.

      In some ways it’s cooler than before to be a heritage speaker, but not till college probably. Our local suburban high school does not make a big deal out of being connected to somewhere else.

      We have friends who did it, who kept their kids fluent in Russian in the US. Their oldest is 13. But their grandmother spent a lot of time with them, their mother homeschooled them for a while, and she is very focused. It’s a huge commitment, but doable. Unfortunately, the society doesn’t help (which is why I write the blog).

      Liked by 1 person

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