Friday, May 03, 2013

"This is America. Speak English!"

 Have you ever heard anyone say this?  Ever see that on a tee shirt or in a facebook meme?  It's usually said with a self-righteous, scolding tone - or even with anger.

Interestingly, I ran across  an American children's book in our local parish library (that's "parish" not "county" by the way) that was published in my home town of Gretna, Louisiana by the Pelican Publishing Company.  In fact, the illustrator is a Missouri Synod pastor, now retired, who was one of my predecessors at Salem Lutheran Church in Gretna.

To the apparent shock of the "English Only Movement," There is no English in the text of this book.  It is written entirely in French. Louisiana has no official language, though French has had special status in the state since 1968.

How can this be?

Well, not every state in the Union originated as an English colony.  Louisiana was settled by the French and the Spanish long before it became part of the predominantly English-speaking United States.

In fact, in the western part of the state, French is still spoken in many homes, heard on the radio, and is quite apparent in the last names of prominent families.  French was spoken here generations before English.  It is the ethnic heritage of many people in our state.

So, maybe some people here could scold Anglophones with something along these lines: "C'est la Louisiane. Parlez français!"

Even the copyright page of this book is written in French (aside from the name of the government office, and even that is bilingual).

And why is this offensive to some people?  Why would this prompt someone to wear a tee shirt that says: "This is America.  Speak English"?

The answer is really pretty simple: in the words of St. Augustine, it is the "lust for domination."  It is bullying.  It is the desire to control other people and entire populations - even the the point of regulating the speech of school children.  The state constitution of 1921 effectively abolished the use of French in public schools.  Older Cajuns recall being physically punished for speaking French even on the playground.  This has created a situation in many families where older people speak French, but felt ashamed to teach it to the next generation.  This was a sort of ethnic cleansing that has resulted in thousands of people with French last names, Cajun heritage, and francophone grandparents who can't speak French themselves.

There are few things that government does well.  Genocide, including that of the cultural type, is one of them.

Now, schools often have to recruit French teachers from Canada, France, and Belgium to teach ethnically French children how to speak the language their own state government attempted to stamp out.  CODOFIL is an organization dedicated to the encouragement of the French language in our state.

This organization was made necessary by previous generations who maintained the short-sighted attitude that  "This is America.  Speak English."

We Americans are known throughout the world for our inability to speak other languages.  As a professor at the seminary put it, half of our theological library is in German.  Unless a student can read German, half of the books are off limits to him.  What advantage is there in being unilingual?  Is this really something to be proud of?

Germans in America likewise suffered the loss of their linguistic heritage because of pressures from "patriotic" Americans during World Wars I and II - perhaps some of the same "patriots" that interred Americans of Asian descent into forced relocation camps complete with barbed wire and guard towers - even the relatives of some American military personnel who were fighting and dying in Europe.  "This is America..."

But the reality is this: compelling the use of English is un-American.  For the first amendment - a cherished explication of the American mind and articulation of the foundational rights explicitly defended in the Bill of Rights - protects the right of free speech: "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech...".  Instead of "This is America.  Speak English," the truly patriotic sentiment is: "This is America.  Speak whatever you want!"  That is, if we still connect America to freedom, if we still believe it is the preservation of liberty that defines who we are as a people.

Instead of bullying foreigners and Americans into using exclusively English, why not let the free market decide?  Most people will speak English - perhaps only English.  But where freedom is allowed full course, some people will speak French in Louisiana, Spanish in Texas, German in Wisconsin, Norwegian in Minnesota, and Hawaiian in Hawaii.  So what?  And by teaching our children to be multilingual, they will only increase their odds at being successful in a global economy.

The fact of the matter is that Americans and foreigners are free to speak anything we want - in our homes, on the street, in our churches, at school, at work - anywhere.  If you want to say your prayers in Latin, read the Bible in Greek or Hebrew, converse with your family in French or Spanish, watch movies in Russian or Italian, order your meal in Hindi, Japanese, or Mandarin, or just plain learn to speak Icelandic for no reason at all, so what?  More power to you!  There are even artificial languages like Esperanto and Klingon.  People can even communicate in Morse Code or Pig Latin.  So what?  Why should I have any desire to compel someone to speak English?

Is this really anyone's business?

Here in New Orleans, some people do still speak French.  Spanish is quite common.  Just off the top of my head, I have also heard people in Louisiana speak Vietnamese, Chinese, Swahili, Russian, Japanese, German, Greek, Swedish, Norwegian, Ukrainian, Italian, and Arabic.  It is likely that English will always be spoken here.  And if for some reason it dies off (as even Latin did in Rome itself) it will be because over time, people will freely choose to speak something else.

And the words "freely choose" are important here.  That is supposed to be how decisions are made in America.  Not by government decree.  Not by bureaucratic bullying.  Not by social harassment and intimidation.

"This is America.  Speak whatever you want!"  And as we often say in our laissez-faire Louisiana culture: "Laissez les bons temps rouler!"

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