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.
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