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What Country is this? Oh, right, America…

March 20, 2012

Walking down the street in a Queens neighborhood like Jackson Heights, Eastern Astoria or Corona can be a momentarily confusing experience. As you step out of the subway, your eyes immediately lock with store-front signs and, indeed, store fronts, that are ‘foreign:’ sari shops in Jackson Heights; kebab and shisha restaurants on Steinway Street; Spanish bodegas and tamale-sellers right on the sidewalk in Corona. Walking through these neighborhoods, one can’t help but ask: am I still in America?

The rest of the world puts up store-front signs in English to attract customers to their ‘modern’ stores; in Egypt, practically all of the stores had English names (often mispelled!) that were meant to elevate the status of the store and attract customers. Yet in New York City, neighborhood delis, grocers, bakeries and the like are given non-English names, and are often run by people who, likewise, do not speak English. While the rest of the world tries to become American, America itself is becoming….well, a little less American.

But what is American? Americans are a mix of all the cultures of the world, stirred carefully with self-evident truths such as freedom and equality and independence; American is a pluralism of cultures, reinforced with capitalistic notions and a look-to-the-future approach. America, in it’s short life span, has always been changing, adding new people into the mix. It would be wrong to say that to be American means that one celebrates Christmas, or that one has blonde hair and blue eyes. What American is, however, is someone who promotes freedom and independence, and is someone who speaks English.

Language holds a nation of people together. Let’s face it, if you can’t communicate with your neighbors, than there’s probably not going to be too much of a camaraderie feeling going on; language is perhaps the most basic human function; it is, after all, language that separates man from the beasts. A nation can consist of all types of people-indeed, it can even be a nation of immigrants-and function, as long as there is a common language. Personal choices, cultural differences and individual traditions matter less in the fabric and overall maintenance of a nation’s unity than language. Because if the people of the nation can’t understand what their president is telling them, or don’t know how to fill out a tax form because they don’t know the language, how can they be committed and contributing citizens? Worse yet, how will they feel any goodwill or connection with those who they can’t linguistically understand?

Most liberals probably found Rick Santorum’s declaration that Puerto Rico would need to adopt English as it’s official language for statehood to be ridiculous and culturally insensitive (see link below), but I must say that I agree with him (see, I told you I am not opposed to siding with Republicans at times!) While the situation with Puerto Rico is difficult, as the native population there spoke Spanish long before the island became a political territory of the United States, the island should adopt English as it’s first language should it gain statehood. After all, Hawaii, our 50th state, is also an island far from the mainland and it’s first language is English, despite the fact that the native peoples there originally spoke Hawaiian. Why should Puerto Rico get preferential treatment?

The president of a nation should be able to converse with all his/her subjects, especially those who are in government. If Puerto Rico became a state, would President Obama be able to go converse with the governors, mayors et al. there without problem? Would there be a language barrier? The United States is a big country-geographically wise and population-wise-and yet all of our 50 states have been unified (unlike, say, certain areas of Europe or Africa that are postage-stamp size) because of the fact that there was one de facto language in this country. If half the population is speaking one language and the other is speaking a different one, how on Earth are we all supposed to communicate?

I shouldn’t have to learn Spanish because the new immigrant population refuses to learn English; all of the previous immigrants to this country (let’s face it, all of our ancestors) came here and integrated by learning English. No one put labels on nationally-produced food products in Italian, or German, or Gaelic; no one put up street signs or voting-attendant signs or billboards in French, Polish or Chinese (although now, in Queens, New York neighborhoods there are signs in certain tongues, which means that one doesn’t have to go out of the country to feel like they’re traveling abroad). Why waste money on a plane ticket when you can visit “Little China Town” or “Little India” here in New York?

Today on the phone a customer asked if I spoke Spanish; he had no other way of communicating what he wanted. When I walk into a store near my home, it’s always a 50-50 chance that the people might not speak English; perhaps the percentage is actually higher. I know people will disagree with my viewpoint; I remember expressing these ideas back in college and my college friends, who had parents who couldn’t speak a lick of English even though they’d lived in this country for 15+ years, vehemently opposing my stance.

People who live in this country and can’t speak English-and, especially, don’t even attempt to learn English-are basically shirking the idea of being American. By refusing to integrate at all into “popular culture” it’s as though one is saying, “I don’t care about this country.” Why come here if you don’t like American society, and simply want to recreate your home country? If you can’t understand what’s going on in the news and can’t talk to anybody except the minority ethnic group that speaks your native tongue, then how can you possibly be a good contributing member to American society when you can’t communicate with most of America? It even goes to an issue of safety: what if you were hurt? You certainly couldn’t talk with the police if you can’t speak English, unless by chance the policeman who arrives speaks your own language.

America is a great country because it is diverse. You can keep your traditions and cultural backgrounds, but in the spirit of nationhood and countrymen, let’s all get a common lengua franca!

*NOTE: To further my point that I believe that language is crucial to unity, let me add that while I lived in Egypt I was ashamed /embarassed that I could not speak Arabic and therefore couldn’t communicate with the majority of the population. Had I been there longer, I would have taken a real course and officially learned the language.

Links:

1. CNN, http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/16/romney-on-english-for-puerto-rico-statehood/

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2012 9:29 PM

    Actually “your” country did not speak English but it was brought there by immigrants = your ancestors. So what is the difference now?
    And how about Canada?

    • March 21, 2012 12:22 AM

      I understand your point, of course; the Native Americans certainly did not speak English. But the nation that we call the United States, with it’s government, was founded with English as the national language, so that is what I am going on. Since then, English has been THE language. If I am a French person nowadays and I decide to move to the United States, I might speak French if I meet other French people but you can bet your bottom dollar that I am going to learn how to speak English fluently. Unless they move into a neighborhood where other people from their home countries settle, most immigrants who come here today will learn English….so why let one group get preferential treatment?

      • March 22, 2012 3:03 PM

        it seem to work fine in Canada and the nation of Canada is not falling apart although they speak different languages

  2. March 20, 2012 10:45 PM

    I think we have correlated the sense of being ‘American’ with speaking English. And yes, it is harder for me to understand someone, and everything that comes from them, when they speak Spanish. That’s true, because I don’t speak it, beyond hola and gracias and lo ciento and no mas, and that hardly got me anywhere last year in Argentina.

    People are people. Our humanity should unite us, not divide us. We all have the same basic needs: food, water, clothing, shelter, love. Our nationalities, our languages, our religions or backgrounds – they don’t matter, really. We are all human beings, striving for the same basic things, and we should be doing that together, not in little pockets of people cordoned off from the rest of humanity because of one or two immovable lines in the sand.

    You are right in that, if I could understand what another person was really saying, I might be able to better understand them. And yes, it is unrealistic to expect me to master enough languages in my lifetime to understand humans the world over. So, I try to fall back on the basics, the things every human being needs to exist, when looking at the world around me. It isn’t a perfect model. It doesn’t always work. But, it has helped me make friends in pretty much every country I’ve visited. It has given me a curiosity about the people I meet and the greater world around me. And, yes, it has even given me a greater sense of pride in being what I am, an American woman in a crazy world.

    • March 21, 2012 12:26 AM

      Likewise, being “German” or being “French” means speaking these languages….the German, Italian and other settlers who moved to places like Argentina and Brazil integrated into the local culture by learning to speak Spanish, or Portuguese…. I firmly believe in being bilingual, and by no means should anyone give up their native tongues, all I am simply suggesting (as I realize people will no doubt be offended for some odd reason by what I wrote) that, well, I like how you put it Andra: “we should be doing that together, not in little pockets of people cordoned off from the rest of humanity.”

  3. March 23, 2012 11:43 AM

    Greetings! Really great points! Yes, yes, it’s more difficult for the brain to learn languages or to hear certain tones past the age of puberty and hence for me, seniors get the exception as it is extremely difficult. However, I’m with ya on the idea that it is important to try should one be in a position where it is required for work and social purposes.

    I know in Canada, 1980s, there was a backlash towards immigrants and racism led to the ethnic enclaves of “Little Italy”, or say “Chinatown” and such due to the unwelcoming reception of ‘born’ Canadians towards this third force that was perceived to be taking away jobs. For instance, the Chinese were perceived as taking up the university seats, raising housing prices, and cause for bad driving. When I did this research paper, it was interesting as it talked about all these cultural festivals, thanks to the Multiculturalism Act, has actually further exoticized the differences between cultures rather then engaging dialogue of our similarities.

    Hence, perhaps the question is moving away from our fears of the ‘other’ whether it be an immigrant of the mainstream society or vice versa and to look at facilitating conversations, in English and non-English :D, to help bridge this gap between the two. Maybe then, issues of marginalization, racism, and other barriers to access can be lessened. 😀

    Thank you for sharing!

    P.S. It’s funny, when I go to gatherings where um, they DO speak English, and they revert back to their native language despite my presence, now THAT irritates the living daylights out of me. And then they tell me, “come on, learn our language”, and I feel like saying, “come on, just speak the one that I know!”. Arghh… Now THAT annoys me even more as some who do KNOW it choose not to speak it, versus my non-native English speaker friends who try and try but feel embarrassed or self-conscious. As per article by Andreea Cervatiuc on this issue: http://tinyurl.com/7mfn4ob. Really good read about gaining access to social networks and barriers faced thus leading to engagement within one’s own community.

    😀 Thank you for sharing! 😀

    • March 28, 2012 8:38 PM

      As always, your comments are very interesting to read. Thank YOU for following! 🙂

      • March 30, 2012 10:56 AM

        Awwww… you so sweet! LOVE your posts! Always expands my brain in some way. 😀

  4. March 28, 2012 4:49 AM

    A country need to have one common lingua franca. Still, citizen need to learn a least minimum 2 others language.

    Many successful people learn more than 3 language. Language can increase our self-esteem.

    • March 28, 2012 7:46 PM

      I agree with you that people should learn more than one language, because it does promote brain activity (recent NY Times article said bilingual people are smarter) and because it’s useful in today’s global world. Indeed, many successful people know several languages! That being said, a common lengua franca–one—NEEDS to exist for simplification sake. Let’s say that all businesses feel that they should have at least one Spanish-speaking worker here in the USA to help with customers who don’t speak English. Well, what happens when it’s that one person’s day off, or they’re busy or not there? Thus, a common lengua franca is practical and unifies us beyond cultural traditions that might never be able to change.

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