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.
Defining ourselves


Crime and punishment in loving languages

Excluding languages is against the law
Excluding languages is against the law

I love hearing people speak multiple languages around me. Recently I’ve gotten over any nervousness about asking people what language they speak, so I’m always having fun with the people and languages around me.

Nevertheless, I know that this feeling does not permeate all of our culture. Plenty of bosses feel the need to control how people talk to one another. Employees feel excluded when colleagues speak to each other in a language they don’t understand. Customers feel suspicious that workers speaking another language might be saying unflattering things about them. Our society largely distrusts other languages, dividing those who only speak English and everyone else.

Forcing only English to be spoken at work is against the law. It is discrimination. Yet some employers exclude languages at work even while workers talk on the phone to family members or walk to their cars in the parking lot. While I would prefer that people enjoy the languages around them, I am relieved that eliminating all languages besides English at work breaks the law. I wanted to present some examples of real language discrimination, as well as the settlements against it, both in the US and abroad.
Read the costs of linguistic discrimination

Myth: Our ancestors happily learned English

America's multilingual past, forced into monolingual present
America’s multilingual past, forced into monolingual present

A common language brings people together. Historically, learning English was a priority for German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Japanese immigrants (to name a few) because it helped them participate in the communities they joined. And because the United States is still predominantly an English-speaking country, that practice should continue today.
From Dear Abby, “Sharing Common Language Is Simply Common Sense,” Jan 23, 1997

Because the United States was at war with Germany, those of German heritage were the main target of suspicion. Soon German language instruction was banned in public schools. Then, parochial schools were forced to use only English in their classrooms. The churches were next, and eventually Iowa’s Governor Harding declared that only English was legal in public and private schools, public places and over the telephone.
From “It’s the Law—Speak English Only!”

How English was actually established in the US

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