Our linguistic lethargy

Why does “Give me your tired, Give me your poor,” also mean give away your language?

Kelsey Kudak

While working at my short-lived retail job during the summer, a Hispanic woman with her two boisterous children entered the store minutes before its seven o’clock closing time. My co-worker let out a heavy sigh and complained the family often rummaged the racks in the same manner, and always came into the store just as the doors were ready to be locked. She then wanted me to communicate that the store was closed. After I did so, the woman purchased her items with an adverse attitude toward me. She tossed money on the counter and did not understand my questions well. Unlocking the door to let her outside, I bid her and her children “Feliz Noches” in their own language and everything changed. Her kids lit up and began talking quickly in Spanish, and the woman smiled and thanked me.

“I just don’t understand why those people don’t learn English,” my co-worker said suddenly as I shut and locked the door. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation at work with a fellow University student. Her argument was that as a student abroad she simply learned the language to assimilate.

I, however, find no problem with the multilingual nature of the United States. Rather, I feel it is a great facet of our culture, and that the language requirements of our school systems do not do enough to support this idea. In high school, I was lucky enough to have a Spanish teacher born in Bogotá, Colombia whose philosophy was that it wasn’t worth speaking Spanish if we were not pronouncing the words correctly. Most experiences are not like this and after two or three years of study, students have retained little in their second language and have not utilized what they do know. Perhaps we have become lazy instead, expecting others to speak English in the wake of our linguistic failures. In Europe, countries are small and individuals cross borders frequently. As a consequence, most people living there speak several languages. As the borders of the United States are wider, it seems we feel it is unnecessary to try. Perhaps this feeds adversity toward those who speak English as a second language. We do not make an effort to speak other languages, but expect those in our own country to lack an accent when speaking English.

In truth, while English is merely the de facto language of our nation (that is, the most commonly spoken language), we have no national language. Back in 1780, Congress failed to pass an amendment that declared English as the national language of the United States, and other proposals since then have also failed. Individuals in our country are free to speak any language they wish, and official documents can be provided in languages other than English.

There is a word in Spanish, “mezcla,” which means mixed or blended. I use it because it most accurately describes our culture in the United States. Many chastise those who have come here and not made complete effort to speak English in stores and in their jobs, but this is not a new concept. Before the surge of Latino, and in our community Hmong and Somali immigrants, the Europeans coming to the States were supposed to “throw themselves heartily into our national life, cease to be European and become Americans like the rest of us.” These are Theodore Roosevelt’s words written in 1897 from his work, “American Ideals.” He continues to criticize immigrants who “cling to the speech, the customs, the way of life and the habits and thought of the Old World which they have left,” and writes that as citizens, we have a right to demand the “Americanization” of immigrants.

But this ideal is problematic, as immigrants were the creators of the government of the United States. Thus, from its beginning, English has not been the only spoken language. Indeed these “founders” of our nation largely ignored and destroyed the languages and cultures of American Indians who had already settled over the land; their language remains unappreciated today. The Spanish language populates the Southwest and a large German community initially populated Minnesota. I can assure you here that it was German, not English, that was spoken. This goes without mentioning the immigrants from France, Poland, Sweden, Holland and so on and so forth. Demographics from the 2000 census reported individuals of Hispanic descent represent the second largest demographic in our country: 14.4 percent of the populace. These are individuals who actually fit into a particular demographic box, but as a Caucasian, I know that I come from several European traditions, from several countries that speak several languages.

So why then does “Give me your tired, Give me your poor,” mean come here and give away your language?

Being American, is being a mixture of ancestry and language and tradition. As we cannot claim any one language as strictly American, why do we belittle those who speak their native language and English with an accent? Many Americans cannot claim to know a second language well enough to utilize it in conversation. Last week, I received information in my mailbox about winter plow routes. It was printed in six languages; while I could only read two, it was comforting to know others were able to read one.

Kelsey Kudak welcomes comments at [email protected]