Is English an American value?

Once again, ethnocentrism raises its ugly head. The cause of the current flap? The newly written Spanish “Star Spangled Banner.”

President Bush has expressed disapproval of the alternative anthem. “I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English,” he has said.

Worse still, Lamar Alexander has introduced a resolution to “Remind the country why we sing our National Anthem in English.”

I have no opinion on the Spanish anthem itself. I don’t care what people sing. They are just words and a tune. Whether or not the song itself is good is for others to decide.

What does bother me is that the idea of an “English-Only” America is resurfacing. I recall being confronted directly with the idea for the first time while I was on my mission in Anaheim. I myself was called as an English-speaking missionary, but there were at least half-a-dozen other languages represented in our mission. While I was assigned to a city with a large Korean community, the woman from whom we rented a room disapproved of that fact. If it were up to her, only English would be used to proselytize in the U.S.

“If they want to come here, they should learn English” She asserted. “we shouldn’t coddle them. Make them learn to talk to us if we’re going to deal with them.”

Few others ever expressed the idea in so harsh a manner, but many of the people with whom I interacted did not disagree with the essential concept.

The idea came up again during the 2000 elections, where one of the issues in Utah was whether or not Utah would become a strict “English only” state. Many spoke of the need to protect American culture and language.

Of course, such ideas have never really died. I have heard Michael Savage talk a number of times about the need for “one language, one culture” in America.

It begs the question: What is “American Culture?” How is English tied to that culture? Are you talking Deep South Culture? The Bible Belt Culture? Rural Midwest Culture? Mormon Culture? Western Urban Culture? California Beach Culture? Urban Black Culture? Just which of those cultures are “American,” and which are not?

Is McDonald’s part of American culture? Am I not American because I abhor the Golden Arches? Baseball (don’t like that either)? How about Microsoft? TV? Widespread car ownership and usage? Conspicuous consumption?

Most “cultures” have an indigenous cuisine (or collection of cuisines—I hear that Tuscans don’t like it when you lump their food in with Sicilians, etc). What in the world is American cuisine? Fast food? Now we’re back to McDonald’s again.

Culture is an abstract concept which is obviously rather difficult to define.

Whatever you want to identify as “our culture” has experienced a radical shift over the past century. If you want to protect the culture of our forefathers—even our grandfathers—you’re a day late and a dollar short. Our modern culture is nothing like the culture of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

I find it interesting to recall that “our” ancestors (ie, Caucasian Northern Europeans, primarily British) didn’t seem too concerned about assimilating into and preserving the pre-existing American culture…

Back to the topic:

Yes, it is convenient and less expensive for an entire community to embrace a single language. It would make a number of things easier if I could easily communicate to my neighbors. It is easier for a community to be united when they share the same culture, beliefs, ideas, and perspectives.

But that isn’t what America is about.

I can say for certain that the immigrants who have come to the United States over its history did not come for the English language. They were not drawn by the quasi-European culture. They did not even come for the strong current of Christianity.

America is, as far as I know, fairly unique in the recent history of the world. This nation was not established based on some cultural identity. The core principle upon which the U.S. was founded and which drew on the peoples from the four quarters of the earth (Africans aside, the bulk of whom were drawn on by compulsion) was liberty: the opportunity to pursue your own path; the freedom to express yourself; self-determination; the chance to be involved in the political process and to have the potential to make your mark.

(That and the economic opportunity to get a hand in the virgin resources of all varieties.)

That essential liberty was the value expressly protected in the Constitution (the Bill of Rights) and championed in the Bill of Rights. Neither document made any mention of the preeminence of the English language.

Because of that unique nature, the United States is one of the few nations to which immigrants have come from all quarters of the globe. We have welcomed (more or less…often less, but that is a discussion for another time) people from all races, nations, and languages. We have been a beacon of hope for the disadvantaged throughout the planet. This is the reason that France bestowed upon us the Statue of Liberty. This is why these words are inscribed on her base:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Our strength isn’t our homogeneity; it is our diversity.

Our essential liberty is the principle which we need to hold dear and protect for all. Pretty much anything else—including something as superficial as linguistic homogeneity—is superfluous.

If we no longer believe that liberty is the core value of this nation, and would instead insist on ethnocentrism (the root of which is nothing more than base pride), then let us push Lady Liberty into the ocean so we can end the pretense.

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4 Responses to “Is English an American value?”

  1. Thom Says:

    I’d love to see the evidence for this horrible problem of immigrants not learning English. When this came up the last time around, all the research suggested that immigrants were learning English at least as fast as past immigrants. The fact is, it takes a generation for most immigrants to really learn English well. It always has. If we support them, they’ll learn it faster and be better citizens in the interim.

  2. Ben Says:

    “Our strength isn’t our homogeneity; it is our diversity.”

    That conclusion could not be drawn from anything said prior to its assertion.

    If you want to draw that conclusion at least show us how you came to it.

    You concluded that people were drawn here from liberty, and I thought you were next going to say something about how people should have the liberty to speak whatever language they choose. That would have been a logical sequence of statements.

    BTW, I served a mission in the US speaking a foreign language and I am 100% in favor of promoting English only. I strongly believe that when people don’t learn English they are doomed to a life of second class citizenry. There are a lot of programs to enable people to live their lives in American without learning English, but the government programs that encourage people to pass their non-English language onto their offspring is misguided. (E.g. subjects taught in Spanish in schools.) Children who grow up here and aren’t fluent in English have a terribly hard time getting a good job, its just reality. For people that I brought into the Church, and love deeply, I would want for them that they became fluent in English and that English became the first language of their children.

    I currently reside in Miami Florida. I am surrounded by immigrants whom I like. I wish for them that they will be able to integrate and attain the American dream. I know that dream is always changing, but I’m quite certain that whatever that dream becomes it will be more difficult for their children to attain if their children are not fluent in English.

  3. Cstanford Says:

    I know this is an old post and maybe this comment won’t be read, but I’m halfway kicking myself for not reading this after commenting on your May 2007 post on immigration reform, and halfway cheering at the thoughts you express in your post. You are spot on.

    I hadn’t even made the connection with the First Amendment: free speech relating to choosing what language to speak. Good point!

    And like Thom I’m skeptical of the supposed problem of immigrants not learning English. I suspect that a lot of first-generation Italians, Poles, etc. didn’t learn English very quickly and maybe some not at all. And it’s all very well to recommend that new arrivals learn the majority language to gain advantages, but I think they’ve kind of figured that out already. Still, if you’re with fellow immigrants, of course you’re going to speak your own language.

    For the past 3 years I’ve been on university campuses hosting great numbers of east Indian and Asian students in engineering and computer science, happily conversing in their native tongues – *gasp* – here in America! Why should I care?

    If it weren’t for Spanish-speaking immigrants, I expect we may well be hearing more fuss about Chinatowns in large cities. And if the Pennsylvania Dutch were less isolated, we’d probably be hearing some hand-wringing about them too.

    There are other advantages to learning another language besides simply being able to communicate with those more powerful than you. Learning another language is intellectually expanding, and besides, speaking different languages is just plain *fun*. It’s a shame that there isn’t more serious effort to get all Americans to really learn other languages, beyond just taking a few high school classes.

  4. nasro Says:

    Iwant to study

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