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Myth: Undocumented Americans Don’t Bother To Speak American

No less a linguistic authority than Sarah Palin recently pointed out that immigrants should speak American. The Americas include not just North America, but Central and South America as well. How does one choose which language truly represents the Americas: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French or some  indigenous language? If “American” is not a language, but a nationality, then there seems to be a global consensus that only those from the U.S. are Americans. And yes, English has become the lingua franca of the country. We may have thrown out King George III and his Redcoats, but we kept his language, or something meant to reasonably resemble it.

Even the early colonists fretted about the sanctity of the English language since the young nation needed every able-bodied soul willing to build it, no matter the native tongue. Benjamin Franklin was known to be a bit uncomfortable with all the German he heard.

So now, the Sarah Palins of the country are worried about the Spanish language and its usage somehow undermining the very foundation of our democracy. And despite all the clipped and drawled dialects of native-born Americans, Arizona viewers let TV anchor Vanessa Ruiz know they thought she spoke funny, even though she was correctly pronouncing Spanish words. If proper pronunciation is a threat to our national identity, then we’re in need of much more than flag waving.

In a 2011 U.S. Census Bureau report, the finding was that of the 60.6 million people who spoke a language other than English at home, almost two-thirds (37.6 million) spoke Spanish. While today’s immigrants may speak their first language at home, two-thirds of us older than five speak English well or very well, according to research by the independent, nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

It’s not just our children who are learning English; the demand for adult ESL instruction in the United States far outstrips available classes.

Yes, older adult immigrants often cling to our native languages and speak them at home with our children. But our children speak the language of their classmates, teachers, co-workers and business associates. They speak the language that connects them to the larger ideal of America where they seek to belong and succeed. Yes, our heritage is important but we’ve come too far and risk too much to not join the national conversation in English.

Being bi-lingual is an asset in finding work, starting businesses, expanding the arts and traveling abroad to take advantage of a global economy. It’s one important reason why U.S. students are encouraged and often required to study a second language. Spanish is the most popular second language learned in the U.S.  If Spanish is taught in the schools, why is it dismissed as un-American in the streets and even in the presidential campaign?

All the immigrant languages flowing into our nation have enriched our own language and added so many words that thrive in our daily conversation from “Live Más!” to ciao to hors d’oeuvre. While students in other countries start learning a foreign language as early as six, when young minds are particularly open to such studies, U.S. schools often don’t offer second languages until high school when a few courses are not enough to bring about proficiency.

Why fear Spanish when no one is sounding the alarm about other languages? Is it because there are so many Spanish speakers? The U.S. is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the U.S. is now home to 41-million native Spanish speakers, with an additional 11.6 million who are bilingual. This could be a real asset to the ability of the U.S. to be even more influential in the world.

Spanish is one of the UN’s six official languages and is used as an official language of the EU, as well as other international organizations. Native Spanish speakers total 470 to 500 million around the world in Spain and 19 countries in the Americas, as well as Equatorial Guinea.

There is no reason to sound the alarm about the Spanish language threatening the American way of life.  For more than two centuries, the U.S. has built a nation of immigrants bringing with them all their languages and their proven abilities to adapt and flourish in this country. America is so much more than a language; it’s an ideal that is nourished by gathering believers not around a native tongue, religion, ethnicity or skin color, but an affirmation of democracy and freedom.

The U.S. has made English the dominate language of the world. It isn’t going to fade from existence in California or Texas. Sounds more like xenophobia than a crisis of hegemony. It is most unbecoming for a mighty nation to fear a language when intolerance is the biggest threat to all we hold dear.

The Seal of the United States of America says it all and does so in an ancient foreign language:    E Pluribus Unum – One Out of Many.

Research Sources: Economic Policy Institute, New York Times, Center for Immigration Studies, Pew Research Center, L.A. Times, CNN Money Report, Undocumented, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ July interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, Chuck Todd’s Nerdscreen, American Immigration Council, Emmy-winning journalist/Univision anchor and published author Jorge Ramos, Huffington Post’s “This Land Is Your Land” and Sam Stein & Amanda Terkel’s GOP and the 14th, NPR’s “The Debate Over Anchor Babies and Citizenship,” ABC News, Migration Policy Institute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Congressional Budget Office, American Community Survey, AP’s Russell Contreras: “Trump’s Deportation Idea,” Congress Blog: H.A. Goodman’s 2014 “Illegal Immigrants Benefit the U.S. Economy,” linguistics teacher John McWhorter’s “What Sarah Palin’s Speak American Is All About,” attorney and USA Today board contributor Raul A. Reyes and Claudio Iván Remeseira,  NBC Latino

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