opinion

The Language of America

Image By: Courtesy of Creative Commons

What is the official language of the United States of America? You would think it was English, wouldn’t you? 

It’s what our colonizers spoke, what our founders spoke and what many of us in the US speak today. But English is not the official language of the US. German is the official language of Germany. French is the official language of France. But, the US? We have no official language. 

I thought about this fact a lot during my first two year of college when I went to the University of Miami in Florida. 

People joke that they like Miami because it’s close to the United States, the connotation being that it isn’t the United States because the population is so overwhelmingly Cuban that the city feels far more Cuban than American. 

The Cuban culture in Miami is omnipresent, you see it in the street signs, in the cafes, in the art museums and especially in the language. 

In Miami, people don’t just speak Spanish and English, they speak only Spanish. I ran into several instances when I was trying to speak with someone and they couldn’t understand me because they didn’t speak a word of English. 

I never minded being spoken to in Spanish. All I can say is Hola with a heavy midwestern twang, but I appreciated the idea of someone trying to communicate with me through a language barrier. 

However, I always noticed that when I was being spoken to in Spanish by someone, that person was usually elderly and they had a younger person, likely a son or daughter, with them. And, the son or daughter almost always instantly reprimanded them when they spoke in Spanish. 

They would get angry with their parent for not being able to speak English and then apologize to me on behalf of their parent saying, “I’m so sorry, my mom is from Cuba and she doesn’t know any English, we just wanted to know if this is where we should turn to get to the Target.”

During my two years there I saw that there was a sense of shame in the Cuban community around not being able to speak English. 

When these adults would scold their parents there was often a comment along the lines of, “You need to know English, Dad. You live in the United States now.”

But the United States has no official language and I don’t think that was a careless decision. I think it was genius. 

Once upon a time we prided ourselves on being a nation of immigrants. A nation that wasn’t just a place of refuge for foreigners but a place that belonged to foreigners, that they could claim and shape into a place they wanted to call home. 

Being of Jewish heritage myself, my community integrated themselves into the United States quite differently than the Cubans of today. 

When the Jews came over from Europe they were hyper-focused on assimilation, they were determined to leave behind the old country and embrace the English language, American forms of entertainment and American lifestyles. They worked their way into the media industry, the theater industry, the music scene and made some of the most classic American works we know of today like Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

The Jews were intent on assimilation but it has left Jewish Americans today with a sense of distance from our old culture. Most American Jews don’t speak Yiddish, wear babushkas or make challah from scratch on Shabbos nights. We embraced “American” culture. 

But the Cubans who emigrated to the US in recent years chose to not assimilate. They came to America and they brought their cigars and their dominos and their rapid fire Spanish idioms with them. 

The Cuban culture is so salient in Miami and I think that should be celebrated and embraced. The Spanish language is lilting and beautiful and makes Miami such a special place to be in. How about instead of pressuring immigrants to speak the English language, handed down by our slave-owning, reservation-destroying founders, we try to learn their language. We try to understand their way of life which is just as “American” as ours. 

Perhaps going the extra mile to try to understand someone else’s language rather than getting frustrated at them for not knowing ours would help us empathize better  with each other in this increasingly polarized time. 

We need to cherish and preserve every single beautiful cultural legacy that makes America the melting pot that we keep trying to forget it is. Next time you’re spoken to in another language appreciate that rich piece of culture someone is sharing with you. Inquire to find out a little more about the language and heritage of those around you. 

As I watched Shakira and JLo’s jaw-dropping Super Bowl performance and saw the Chiefs and 49’s face off at Hard Rock Stadium I couldn’t help but feel satisfied that this event, a quintessential piece of American culture, was held in Miami. Because, to me, Miami is the most American city of all. A city of immigrants, pride and vibrant culture. 

Near the Statue of Liberty in New York there is a sign in Battery Park that reads the following, “Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life - John F. Kennedy.” And I couldn’t agree more. 

Dana is a senior studying Journalism and Theatre. Do you think that Americans should embrace the melting pot of languages and cultures of its citizens? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com

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