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

I saw language loss happen

Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?
Every language in the US is on the verge of death. How do you give it life?

I can see language loss happening under my nose. It’s a process that takes years, but when you see it, you despair for the health of a language.

This week I took my kids to get yogurt, and the young cashier was Somali-American. She had an American look to her, even though she wore a hijab. My daughter thought she might go to her school. I greeted her in Somali.

Maalin wanaagsan! “Good day!”

She gave me a blank look.

That’s when I saw it happen.
Language death

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