What Country is this? Oh, right, America…
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.