As a less-than-huge sports fan, my main motivation for participating in Super Bowl festivities is the commercials. The group I watched the momentous game with seemed to understand this sentiment; while they were rowdy during the game, everyone shushed one another to watch advertisers put forth hundreds of thousands of dollars per second for precious airtime. But we fell especially silent upon hearing the first line of “America the Beautiful” accompanied by the stereotypical American cowboy. Then, after a brief moment of confusion, my mouth fell open into a gaping smile at the sight of a Latino girl and the realization that the lyrics were now in Spanish. The commercial proceeded to present the song in various languages and show smiling faces of all colors, ages, genders, and adorned by all manner of head coverings.
The people in the commercial and I may have been smiling, but Americans across the country were outraged. Internet comments ranged from insisting that those who come here “need to learn the language” to suggesting that the commercial was an insult to the armed forces. This overreaction is what I have come to think of as “The Language Backlash,” and I’m about sick of it.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so exhausting if our official language was English, but it’s not. We have no official language nor do we have an official religion or race. We are a nation that claims to be a melting pot, a nation of immigrants, tolerant and respectful of all. While we do a better job than many at offering justice and equality, we are extremely protective of a language that is not even officially “ours”.
In Germany this summer, when at a restaurant or hotel I would tentatively ask, “English?” And if the waiter or clerk didn’t speak my language, they very politely found someone who did. There was occasional frustration over the language barrier but they never treated me as if I were attempting to ruin the integrity of their country or its language with my ignorance of it. Do I wish I had known German? Of course! But I didn’t feel that I was treated poorly for this short falling.
I encountered the same thing in Costa Rica. A little girl tugged at my sleeve to ask a question. “No Española.” I explained sadly. She nodded and asked in perfect English “May I please go to the bathroom?” I was in their country, they were speaking my language, and they didn’t make a fuss.
It is strange that a country that clings to its diversity as a selling point is so intolerant of different tongues being spoken inside the melting pot. Americans need to recognize that new languages, different religions, and diverse ideas do not threaten the integrity of the US, but strengthen it.
More importantly, the English language is not in danger. I think at least part of this backlash comes from the fear that English will lose its dominance, that we will be forced to speak Spanish or Mandarin or Arabic. This is utter nonsense; not only is English learned as a second language in many countries (and is the world’s most spoken language by a number of countries), but those who come here wish to learn it. I have spent the last several weeks helping in ESL classes and those who participate are eager to learn. During the summer I work with many native Spanish speakers and they are always trying to improve their English. So while other languages may be spoken in the home or used to sing a song about America’s beauty, they are not going to “replace” English anytime soon.
Coke is known for delivering heart-felt commercials during Super Bowl season. It is always a nice reprieve from the talking babies, dancing pistachios, and houses made of beer to think that the world can be a little simpler when you drink a Coke. This year was no exception; Coke reminded us that we are not a country made up entirely of White, Christian, English speakers. We are a country whose citizens are different, complex, and most importantly human. So America, take it easy, take a deep breath and have a Coke, because if there’s anything we all do in the same language, it’s smile.