Full disclosure: I do not fluently speak any foreign language. I learned to speak tourist German and Spanish in my Army days, though I never was able to wrap my arms around French when I was living in Belgium. (Those darned French have a different word for EVERYTHING!) And no, I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night either.
Back when I lived in Los Angeles, everything seemed to be bilingual. Hearing foreign accents was a daily occurrence and it used to bug me because even back then I was hard of hearing. People with accents are often tougher for me to understand. (I suffer from CHS. Can’t Hear Shit.) But the use of languages other than English wasn’t off-putting to me at all.
Today I heard on the radio the remarks from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal regarding the assimilation of immigrants into the United States:
“It is my view that immigration can make a country stronger, or it can make a country weaker. It really depends on whether immigrants coming to your country are coming to join your culture, your mores, your laws, and become a part of your history. Or, are they coming to be set apart? Are they willing to assimilate? Do they have their own laws they want to establish? Do they fundamentally disagree with your political culture?”*
The subsequent discussion on the radio focused on the assimilation of immigrants into American culture and that such assimilation required the use of English. Required. Many local D.C. callers to the radio show were immigrants who celebrated their parents’ requirement to speak nothing but English. I get that. Learning English in the United States of America has a huge practical advantage over the alternative. It really does set one up for success.
Culture is entwined with language and I have said myself that you can’t fully understand a culture without knowing at least a little of the language. Having admitted that, I find myself thinking more and more that it’s not the be all and end all for everyday life in these here United States or anywhere else for that matter.
Hypothetically, if an immigrant embraces liberty, freedom, our representative system of government and loves this Nation just as much as I do, why is it so important that they NOT refer to us as “Estados Unidos” or “Vereinigte Staaten von Amerika?” Those words all describe the same thing. In one sense, it’s like “car” versus “automobile” or “feline” versus “cat.” Two expressions exist which describe the same concept.
Why do we accept those subtle variations in our own language yet are so intolerant of variations supplied by other languages? Isn’t it just other words for the same things?
Personally, I suppose I can sum this up by saying that I really don’t care how you talk to me as long as you treat me with respect and kindness. I totally get the practical aspects of communicating with me in English. If you want me to understand you, you will probably have to query me in English, but if you’re lucky, I may know the German or Spanish words. Or if you’re really lucky, you may stumble on the two Russian words I know. (I got a D in Russian in college — not my proudest moment.)
It’s not these practical aspects of language that perplex me. It’s the outright fear and indignance that a lot of Americans exhibit at the prospect of other languages creeping into the American culture.
So I’ll ask thusly: Why do Americans seem to fear language other than English? Should we? Can immigrants who assimilate every aspect of our culture except the use of every day English be considered truly assimilated? Does the inclusion of other languages diminish or augment American culture?
* My emphasis. I am neither endorsing Governor Jindal’s position nor do I oppose it. I am merely using it as a jump-off point for discussion. Now jump and discuss.