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

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

Can you preserve a culture without the language?

Culture is about how you communicate, not just how you dress
Culture is about how you communicate, not just how you dress.

Disappearing cultures cause me to panic. The permanent loss of languages and ways of life make me imagine humanity impoverished. Over the weekend I watched the 2010 documentary, “Voices in the Clouds,” about a Taiwanese-American man, Tony Coolidge, who reconnects to his Atayal (one of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan) heritage after the death of his mother. Coolidge connected with activists who are working to preserve the heritage of these various cultures from this Island. When I didn’t hear the Atayal language spoken, though, I worried about the viability of this culture in the near future.

Cultural relics

I had mixed reactions to this film. On the one hand, the children amazed me as they sang and danced with such passion and skill beyond their years. Their teacher’s success is know internationally.  The film also highlighted those who continued traditional handicrafts, especially beautiful embroidery.

On the other hand, I missed hearing the language. Most of the movie was in English and Mandarin. I’m assuming the songs were in the native languages. I did not, however, hear anyone conversing in the Atayal language. When Coolidge met one of the Atayal elders and introduced himself, the woman immediately asked in Mandarin, “Do you speak Atayal?” The answer was “no” and so the conversation continued in Mandarin.

To me, the rest of the culture rang hollow with the language; it felt like looking at a museum. Rather than living and communicating in the most normal way, which happened to be Atayal, the life and crafts and music were about preservation. It was like “living history”–but history all the same. One very old woman talked about life in her mountain village, before she moved to the city: “We used to sing in the trees.” They simply sang; they didn’t sing to preserve a culture.

Cultural viability

When a people speak a language with each other, they are still producing new culture. Something essential is preserved with the original language. For example, if a people relocates to another place and starts wearing jeans and t-shirts, the culture doesn’t feel lost. But if the children wear jeans and t-shirts and can no longer speak to their grandparents, the culture is dying. When the kids wear “modern” clothing, but make up songs in their native language, the culture is perfectly alive.

Recently I heard a leader of a local Lakota community say, “If you don’t speak Lakota, you are not Lakota.” I don’t think he was trying to exclude anyone, but to challenge his community. Unless the people are speaking in this language, they are acting like their ancestors, not following in their footsteps. Loss of traditional hunting and housing have caused distress in indigenous communities, but the level of worry has risen as they see the viability of the language disappear.

Work to preserve a culture

The hardest part of a culture to preserve is the language. A workshop–or 100–will not make you an expert in a language. It’s a lifelong process of hard, beautiful, social work as you connect with those who connect with the culture on its deepest level.

Those of you who are learning a language, you are continuing a culture. Those of you who want to preserve a culture, learn the language and teach it to others. You and your conversation-partners will benefit by extending the life–both in time and in numbers–of another culture.

How will you continue a culture?  Which culture?  Why?

Photo credit: betta design / Foter / CC BY-NC