Wednesday, February 5, 2014
The recent controversy over the Coca-Cola commercial in which people across this diverse country sang, America the Beautiful, in their native languages has spurred me to write. As an educator and as an ordained minister, I feel called to point a few things out.
First, the attitude that if you live in America then you should speak the language of the country is a bit skewed. "America" is vast, consisting of North, Central and South. The "native" language of this vast land is Native American in its various dialects. Quite honestly, I only know a handful of people who speak Native American. I come by this knowledge through the privilege of an education in Boston schools, which at the time I went to them were not considered to be the cream of academia. However, I had amazingly dedicated teachers who informed my awareness that we - those of European roots - were not "native" to this land we call The United States.
To be honest, I think the fact that my ancestors lost their languages to live in this country is sad and unfortunate. Language is power. If you are able to speak a language then you are able to share in the benefits of whatever culture you are in. I wish I had been given the gift of knowing German, Slovenian, Gaelic, Welch or Native American...but my ancestors, like many who come to this country, refused to share their native tongues with their children. A great richness was lost and with it grew fear.
Second, in the United States, the predominate language is English, true enough, but English is a language that has been built on many other languages. In fact, English is a Germanic (as in Germany) language. As an English teacher, I know this from history and extensive research. This happened because the kings of England at one time were determined to conquer the entire world. With colonies on almost every continent, English was morphed and enriched with the languages of the conquered lands. To date, English has "borrowed" words from over 50 other languages. So, when you speak "English," you using words from the German, Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Arab, Dutch, African, Hebrew, Indian, Irish and Romani languages, just to name a few.
In addition, English is a language of many dialects; some so unique that someone from Georgia placed in the middle of Scotland would be hard pressed to understand what the Scot was saying (and vice versa), yet, they more than likely have the same relatives! In fact, this is such a critical problem that Window asks its users if they want American English or British English.
Third, as an English teacher to second language learners, I am intimately aware of the struggle of immigrants and refugees to this country. My students are my heroes! Why? Because, those of us born here had the privilege to learn the English language from childhood. We were immersed in it. Adults who leave the countries of their birth to come here, to the land of the Free, where opportunities to improve are afforded everyone, know that they must learn the language in order to succeed. Many of these courageous people come from countries where only the rich have the privilege of education. So, not only do they struggle to learn a new language, but as adults, they are also learning the rudimentary skills of literacy. No easy feat! To give you an example, it is like being put into the middle of a group of people playing a game where you don't know the rules, but you are expected to participate.
Finally, as an ordained minister, I know that we are called to LOVE one another. How is negating the right of someone to speak in the language of their birth a loving act? Jesus didn't speak English, yet there are those who quote his words daily. Why? Because Jesus spoke the language of Love. This is a language that transcends cultures, races, borders and boundaries. This is the language of the great peacemakers of our time and times past. This is the language that all children know but many forget because of poverty, prejudice, hegemony and fear.
We are a tiny, tiny planet in the middle of a huge cosmos. If we are to survive, we MUST use the language of Love. America is beautiful! This beauty comes from the rich diversity of the people that populate its lands. Within the United States, just a part of the vastness of America, we, the people, have come from many lands, many cultures, many religions. This is what makes us great! Let us not forget that those that founded this country did so in order to be free of persecution. Let us not, in our privileged Freedom, become persecutors. Let us speak the language of Love and create a better world for all human beings.