This Is America

by Gabriel Urbina


This essay presents the United States as a multilingual country, since its beginnings, which is not a menace to the unity of this country.

We, a group of students and teaching assistants, were having a meal, at a restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona. It was the end of the semester, and we were happy because things had gone so well with all of us. The conversation in Spanish was lively. A man came to our table, and he addressed Carole Larsen, who was sitting at the head of the table. He said to her, "Speak English. This is America." A monolingual person had come to our table, a believer in "oneness." One nation, one language. We had heard this before, but we knew from experience, that is was better not to start a discussion with this man, about what he had just said, for several reasons.

First of all, it is very difficult to discuss the issue of language choice with those who have this ingrained mindset of oneness. It would have been necessary to discuss some of the History of our country. About half of our group was from Latin America, and the other half was born and raised in the USA, including Carole Larsen, who hailed from Utah. Now, confrontational monolinguals do not like to hear about American History from foreign-looking individuals. They would take offense, because they would take it as criticism of the USA. Then, they would say, "If you don't like it here, why don't you go back to where you came from?" So we kept quiet, while Carole answered the man. She said, "Sir, we are college students, and we are practicing our Spanish. Some of us are graduate students in the subject, and some others are undergraduates who need to prove proficiency in a language other than English."

The man returned to his table, and we continued to enjoy our meal, and the lively conversation in Spanish continued. Most likely, the monolingual man was only partially satisfied with Carole's answer. For him, and many others, it would be difficult to see the point of studying a second language. It would be against his beliefs, wouldn't it? Yet, since the times of the thirteen Colonies, this has been a multilingual country.

The European languages spoken in the Colonies were English, German, French, and Dutch, and they are still present in our country today.. English became our common language. German is spoken in Pennsylvania. "Pennsylvania Dutch" is a misnomer. German is also spoken in North Dakota. French is still spoken in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The Dutch language was present in New Amsterdam, now known as New York City, and areas along the Hudson river. Dutch is still present in New York State, and New Jersey. It is also present in a few small Wisconsin communities. Spanish was also spoken in the Colonies. With the first wave of Jewish immigration in 1654, Sephardic Jews arrived. They spoke Ladino, which is an ancient form of Spanish. Yiddish and Eastern European languages were brought to the Colonies, with subsequent waves of Jewish immigration.

The Native Americans, living in what became the 13 Colonies, were the Algonquians and the Iroquois. They weren't two single tribes, but two groups of nations, or confederations of tribes. Both groups spoke variations of the same language or related dialects. These languages are still spoken in New York State, and in Canada (southern Quebec, and eastern Ontario).

The languages brought to America by African slaves did not survive. These slaves came from different tribes, and had a multitude of languages. Slaves were forbidden from speaking their native languages; their masters outlawed their use. Slaves with direct contact with their masters learned English. From them, a Creole version of English has survived. It is known as Gullah or Sea Island Creole English, spoken in coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia.

During these early times in our History, we see, for the first time, the fear of other languages appear. Fear of revolt; fear of slaves plotting against their masters; fear of slaves communicating, and organizing, in a language the masters did not understand. Fear of losing control.

Our nation as it is today came to be by war, purchases, and annexations. When our country was expanded by one of these methods, did we really expect the people living in those lands to quit speaking their languages? This involves quite a number of people. It would seem an unreasonable expectation, then and now.

Let's examine briefly each method or manner of territorial expansion.

Firstly, our wars. There were several dozens of the so called Indian Wars. There were wars between the tribes, and between the Indians and the colonizers. These wars lasted until 1924. But, war, infectious diseases, migrations to Canada and Mexico, and forced relocation, could not totally wipe out all of the Native American languages. For that to happen, total genocide would have been necessary. It didn't happen. Nowadays, the major Native American languages spoken in the U.S. are Navajo, Sioux (3 dialects), and Apache (2 languages and many dialects).

Our country prevailed in the Mexican-American war (1848), with the resulting addition of all or parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. Spanish and Native American languages were spoken here, and are still spoken today.

Secondly, our purchases. We purchased Louisiana from France (1803); Florida from Spain (1819); and, Alaska from Russia (1867). We also purchased additional land from Mexico (1853) which added territory to Arizona and New Mexico. The big question here is, when we acquired these lands, did we also acquired or purchased the people living there? No, would have to be the answer. That sounds like slavery, doesn't it? We didn't purchase their minds, and their ways of communicating. So, it shouldn't bother us the hear French in Louisiana; Spanish in Florida; Russian in Alaska, and all the Native American and Alaska Native languages spoken in those states.

Lastly, our annexations. We annexed Texas (1845), which used to belong to Mexico, and Hawaii (1900), which used to be a monarchy. Again, we have people who spoke Spanish and Hawaiian respectively, two languages still spoken today in our country.

In contemporary times, we also have to consider our ethnic enclaves, in order to have at least a schematic view of our linguistic situation. The best known ethnic enclaves are our Chinatowns. We have them in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Other ethnic enclaves: 30 Little Saigons in 21 states; 16 Koreatowns in 12 states plus the District of Columbia; 4 Japantowns or Little Tokyos in California, and 1 in Washington State. We must add numerous Jewish enclaves, where Yiddish, and various Eastern European languages are spoken. We have ethnic enclaves with people from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean. We also have Pacific Islanders, who have formed enclaves. Our federal government created 25 ethnic enclaves, called Indian Reservations.

When we consider our territorial expansion together with our ethnic enclaves, it is impossible to quantify the number of languages and dialects spoken in the United States. Not even the linguistic experts attempt to do it. What emerges is an overwhelming picture of a multilingual country. We have a great number of communities with bilingual citizens. This is not totally visible to the monolingual anglophones. Many ethnic groups only speak their native languages at home. But the Spanish-speaking population has the habit of using their language in public. The scene at that restaurant in Phoenix is very symbolic. All the students at our table were fully bilingual. A man approaches our table and tells us to speak English. A monolingual person, valiantly against all odds, confronting the bilinguals.

The desire for "oneness" sometimes brings positive and unexpected results. The group Pro-English, with their English for Children Initiative, was successful in replacing bilingual education with a total immersion program called Structured English Immersion, in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts. Instead of progressively transitioning into English, which is the method of bilingual education; with SEI the children usually spend one or two years studying English only, then they go on to regular classes. Since children are not forbidden to speak their native language, or punished if they do, like it happened in the past to children in Arizona and Texas, and the children attending the Indian Reservation schools, then there is no problem. It would seem the SEI programs are confined to the classroom. And what is the result of these immersion programs? More bilingual children.

Bilingual education programs are still available in Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas. Both options, bilingual or immersion, are available in Florida, New Mexico, and New York. We have moved from assimilation and acculturation efforts to a strong desire to preserve language and culture. This is more evident with the tribal nations. For example, the Navajo have bilingual programs for youngsters, and the Cherokee also want to preserve their language. In general, tribal nations want language preservation, and language recovery.They currently have community based schools and colleges in 16 states.

The United States does not have an official language. The English Only Movement, also known as Official English Movement did not succeed at the federal level. However, 31 states have declared English as their official language. But Hawaii recognizes Hawaiian as an official language also; and Alaska recognizes 20 Alaska Native languages as official languages also. All of this is rather symbolic. It has no impact upon the linguistic reality of our country. The State of Louisiana has no official language, but it has done something that has more significance. Since 1968, Louisiana has granted special status to the French language, promoting it as a second language. French is considered important in education, culture, tourism, economical development, and in international relations. The state has an agency created for this purpose.

In spite of everything, the English language is not in danger. Adults are going to learn English to different levels of proficiency. This depends on the level of communication needed to manage in their daily lives, and also depends on the profession, trade, or business of each individual. And let's not forget that many new immigrants and refugees already speak English. Other languages do not threaten our national identity. We are united by our desire to live in this country, and in the acceptance of this nation's values and ideals. Many of those values and ideals are universal, and can be understood in any language.

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